A study of lost love in two modern American railroad songs from Eilen Jewell

Challenging distinctions between Alternative Country and Roots-based music, singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell’s 2014 album Live At The Narrows is so fine a compilation that it should be seen as a multi-faceted gem, befitting an artist bearing a surname such as hers: it is worthy of a wider listening audience than it currently enjoys.

A fan of her work across recent years myself, even before I saw Eilen perform back in my old hometown, down here in rural Victoria, in south-eastern Australia, I was not surprised to find that one of the strongest audience reactions towards all 29 live tracks – across two discs – arose exactly where I would have expected it: following an exquisitely lilting tune – so full of love and longing, loss and regret – called “Santa Fe”, already a highlight from her 2011 studio album Queen of the Minor Key.

Anyone from New Mexico not yet acquainted with this singer – this song – should do yourself a favor and set that oversight to rights at your earliest convenience …

In the meantime, readers unfamiliar with Eilen Jewell’s work – especially if hailing from so famous a place – might rightly expect such a song to pay tribute to the city which is home to this blog.

Let me warn you instead that the one location specified in the song lyric is rather Cortez, although other “mountain towns” are also mentioned in general terms. All located directly to your north, of course, across the border in Colorado, these places are said to have:

… burned red
Consumed by a sunset

with Eilen Jewell adding the wistful observation that:

I’d be happy disappearing under colors like that

With her feeling the need to leave a lover behind, it becomes a critical question how she might have gone about vanishing down that mountain …

Despite expectations prompted by its title, Eilen’s song happens to give no modern-day perspective on a New Mexico city long since turned into a household name (even in Australia) by mythical Fifties westerns starring the likes of Roy Rogers and Randolph Scott.

Her haunting tune does build upon another seminal cultural tradition, however, regardless of Hollywood, yet still reaching over borders in time and space, well beyond the mid-Twentieth Century, even across the Pacific: not gunslinger movies, but great American railroad tunes.

To its enduring credit, this has become a vast body of work – deeply rooted and troubadour-like – arising from many a rambling songster making resonant links between train travel and questions of love or freedom; giving voice to rebellious spirits, to hearts divided as much as broken. Often couched in sorrowful melodies, these railway songs can be underpinned by a poverty of the emotions; not to forget a lack of ready cash; even a scant regard for the law.

Any number of definitive moments in American song could rightly be highlighted: Robert Johnson’s realization that “all my love’s in vain”, as his partner’s train leaves the station with “two lights on behind”, one colored blue (as a symbol for his blues), the other one red (as a metaphor for his mind); Leadbelly – likewise from the delta – urging the Midnight Special to “shine her ever-lovin’ light on me” as an omen for release, if only that locomotive’s headlight could beam through the bars in his jail cell window; Johnny Cash being “stuck in Folsom Prison”, able to “hear that train a coming” but bemoaning – in his country spirit – no promise of liberty being linked to the engine’s sound; Bill Monroe playing his bluegrass heart out, by contrast trusting that his beloved Orange Blossom Special will be “bringin’ my baby back”; or Arlo Guthrie belting out that rousing folk anthem from a “native son” – “Good mornin’, America, how are ya?” – while personifying “the train they call the City of New Orleans”.

Along with all these depths of emotion, American railway tunes tend to evoke such a vivid sense of location, at times even furnishing a glossary of place-names fit to act as a primer for students of geography from the wider world whose curiosity is drawn across the borders of your northern continent by the subliminal pull of cultural gravity.

In so many of these train-based songs, support from a fiddle or blues harp goes hand in hand, by way of instrumental accompaniment, acting as a musical equivalent to onomatopoeic language in poetry. Eilen Jewell herself obliges in her own piece “Santa Fe”, playing harmonica as part of a long-standing tradition of mimicking the sound of chugging locomotives and lonesome steam-whistles wailing along steel rails …

One of only seven tunes not composed by the singer-songwriter herself – across the Live At The Narrows double set – is another train-based folk song, written by Eric Andersen. Called “Dusty Boxcar Wall” (and iconic in itself), it opens up like this:

I’m goin’ away, my baby
I’m gonna leave you, honey, now
Well, that train passed by when you lay sleepin’
I’m gonna write you a letter on a dusty boxcar wall

Dating from the mid-1960s, this piece has proven to be far more long-lasting (despite potential flaws) than any message scribed into dust on a freight car wall could ever have been. In practical terms, you might feel inclined to point out that such a message could never have been read first-hand by its intended recipient. Perhaps more perplexing, however, could be the fact that the male – in planning to leave – is likewise the one who seems to have been abandoned in love:

I once had a love in old Kentucky
I once had a love in sunny Tennessee
But a New York gal brought me pain and sadness
Now I’m here as lonely as I can be

As he is “going away, my baby”, set to “leave you, honey, now”, surely it is question-begging as to how the singing voice himself still happens to have a lover who “lay sleeping”, there beside him – after all, he professes to be the one who has been made to feel “pain and sadness” at the hands of “a New York gal”, such that “Now I’m here as lonely as I can be”. One can only guess the man in question is experiencing loneliness in love, even in a new relationship, after the New York heartbreak: still wracked by lingering pain from the previous disaster, he now feels the need to abandon his subsequent partner, through no fault of hers.

Despite the fact that the original song lyric – both engaging but challenging – was written by a man, for performance by a male voice, it is notable that Eric Andersen’s text has been altered markedly in being widely revived in current times, always by female singers whose approach infers a contrasting slant on the sexual politics depicted.

Apart from Eilen Jewell’s own interpretation, on YouTube you will find this piece performed with heart by the Folk/ Roots group Driftwood, featuring violinist Claire Byrne as lead vocalist; you can track down a (reluctant) treatment of it from a singer as renowned as Gillian Welch (backed by her musical partner David Rawlings); you will even come across it being sung by a trio of female musicians known as Jan Bell and the Maybelles.

Strikingly, all four versions sung by women diverge significantly from Eric Andersen’s original, in large part through taking the surprising step of incorporating lyrics borrowed directly from “The House of the Rising Sun”, made famous by Eric Burden and the Animals:

The only two things a gambler needs
Are a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time that he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on the drunk

In all four of these post-feminist adaptations of “Dusty Boxcar Wall” – Eilen Jewell’s included – one can identify changes that go deeper than having Cincinnati become the city of heartache, where the female singer had “once loved a boy”. Rather, you will not only find a set of assertive, pro-active women who each feel forced to break off a valued relationship, leaving before the male partner concerned can become aware of such a departure. Implicitly you might even be invited to recall that the “tall dark stranger” archetype had let men exercise the right to forsake worthy women as a male prerogative back in frontier mythology. So here instead – through their adoption of a substantial reinterpretation of Eric Andersen’s original – you will encounter a set of strong female voices all seeming to endorse the need to beat men at their own game, departing before masculine urges to roam and drink and gamble will inevitably kick in, fit to break a woman’s heart.

Even if Eilen Jewell did not literally make a timely escape from up in Colorado by jumping aboard a southbound freight train that happened to be passing by, her own elegy for lost love – “Santa Fe” – is likewise linked to excessive alcohol consumption as an issue within a relationship, while also being keyed in to a national songbook that celebrates rail travel as a means by which to attain freedom of the heart:

And I fell in love with trains,
Haunted by the old refrain
You ride the Southern, I’ll ride the Santa Fe
Santa Fe… Santa Fe…
Santa Fe…

So it is the Santa Fe railroad service which is being celebrated here, in other words, rather than any destination bearing that name.

As enduring images in American song go – with alternative train routes of course symbolizing the parting of ways between partners in love – this “old refrain” has quite a pedigree in itself, let me add.

Back in 1935, Blind Willie McTell recorded a song called “Ticket Agent Blues”:

Mama, if you ride the Southern, I’ll ride the Santa Fe
When you get in Memphis, pretty mama, look around for me

After an obscure singer named Furry Lewis had performed a lengthier, less cohesive piece along similar lines in 1928, an innovative delta bluesman – Mississippi John Hurt – recorded a more stream-lined version of a song soon after which represents one of a range of tributes to the most recognizable character in American railroad folklore, Casey Jones:

Mister Casey said, before he died
One more road that he wants to ride
People tells Casey, “Which road is he?”
“The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe
Santa Fe.”

As late as 1970, this same “Ballad of Casey Jones” – helping to comprise a set of shared elements in one possible Venn diagram of noteworthy railway tunes – was adopted by yet another legendary figure from Twentieth Century American music, Jerry Garcia, for performance by the Grateful Dead. The repetition of “Santa Fe … Santa Fe” found there prefigures Eilen’s own choice of phrasing, embodying her respect for this “old refrain” …

No matter what debt it might owe to distinguished predecessors, Eilen Jewell’s “Santa Fe” is a tune which holds its own, finding its way back into your inner ear by surprise, haunting as a hymn to longing. For her elegiac vocal is loaded – almost beyond bearing – with regret about mistakes made and love lost; about a relationship forfeited and places left behind:

And I’d give the world if it were mine
To let these memories slip my mind
And wake up next to you one more time
One more… One more time…
One more… One more time…

Having lurked just below the surface from the start, a thought-provoking irony emerges late in the song, however.

The female voice chides herself in retrospect, because – in that earlier relationship – her less mature self “couldn’t stand a perfect thing”, whereas now she sees herself as having been “too young to know any better”.

This tale of failed romance – ruing the mistakes of youth – has a compelling circularity, it transpires, because its opening verses had provided confronting hints about ways in which things may have been far from “perfect”. After all, the young man in question had been prone to “soaking up drink like a sponge.” While drunk, singing “help me dead doctor/ at the top of (his) lungs”, he was inclined to take extreme precautions, should any need for self-defence have arisen subsequently –

You picked up a broken bottle
In case anyone gave us any trouble
And we walked all the way back to Cortez

So her listeners – on reflection – may not concur with the singer’s simple admission of fault:

It was wrong of me to leave,

while still respecting the human decency inherent in her expressing such regret.

In the process, we can appreciate how this song explores complex sentiments, articulating trials faced by a human spirit troubled in love (as given sympathetic expression in “Dusty Boxcar Wall” too, regardless of differences between versions thereof). However, the leverage of “Santa Fe” is not simply founded upon its links to a great body of work which likewise celebrates train travel, much less to a revered American railroad route in particular. In even larger terms, Eilen Jewell’s song triggers yet another level of empathy in her audience through going on to identify a rite of passage which listeners – world-wide –feel obliged to negotiate in ageing.

Whether hidden or explicit – unwitting or self-conscious – borderlines arise in coming of age, with many of us finding ourselves placing youthful choices under an unflinching filter of reflection in retrospect, if we had taken an emotional fork in the tracks which appeared wise at the time (while confronted by a dilemma), only to have such a choice look regrettable afterwards, once viewed through that most galling of lenses – hindsight.

No matter how much – or how little – we might agree with her own self-appraisal, its capacity to prompt such reverie is just one of many reasons why Eilen Jewell’s work is worthy of a wider audience, not only in your own town of Santa Fe, whose mythical name her song celebrates, but further afield too; even well to the south, in Australia.

Divided by borders visible and invisible, physical and emotional, from those cold mountains of the human heart to the north – across the Colorado state line – down to the heat of the New Mexico deserts below, the railhead of Santa Fe must surely have symbolized a tantalizing mixture of choice and distance for Eilen herself when younger.

As a mid-fifties birthday gift a few years back, my wife bought us tickets to hear Eilen Jewell play live in Meeniyan, the town in which I’d grown up, down here in Victoria.

Feeling haunted myself that night by yet another old refrain or two, I wrote this tanka even before I had left a dance hall which I’d known so well, way back in my teens:

a yearning blues
pitched in a minor key
at the old hall
that shook and rocked and rolled
when I first kissed a girl

Rodney Williams

Trafalgar, Victoria, Australia


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