Friday, June 11, 2010

We hear the train

I was born by the railroad tracks
Well the train whistle wailed and I wailed right back...
I heard the train a'comin' this morning just before dawn (Amtrak to Chicago?) and it got me to thinking more about Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  And, well, a lot of other stuff as well.  Mostly random thoughts because there isn't much time this morning and, really, don't most of our thoughts come to us willly-nilly this way?

You don't hear trains much in the city, either because there aren't many running any more or there's so much other offending noise, what with buses and traffic and emergency vehicle sirens, that it's not easy to isolate the sound.  Or maybe they just sneak through while we're sleeping.

The old Green Bay & Western, now that train never sneaked through Whitehall no matter when it was rolling through.  My family lived just two blocks from the tracks -- nearly everybody in a small town lives no farther than two blocks from the tracks -- and our house would shake when the train rumbled over those tracks. I don't remember enjoying the distruption all that much at the time, but I often wondered where it was heading and what was loaded in those box cars.  And the whistle, well I do miss that whistle ...

I thought about that this morning before the alarm went off. That, and where is Johnny Cash on the Rolling Stone list?  Do you think "Folsom Prison Blues" is the sort of song that might belong there?  I certainly do.  As Jay-Z wrote in his introduction:  "When you hear a great song, you can think of where you were when you first heard it, the sounds, the smells.  (Charles may have been hitting on this when he commented on "The Message" -- the song that ranks No. 51 but I can't seem to recall.)  It takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come. It transcends time."

Now Jay-Z's not really writing anything here that we haven't already said ourselves many times in our own conversations about music.  And if you believe the premise, then you can make a case for listing any damn song you like that has moved you in your lifetime. So everybody's Top 500 is going to be decidedly different, tilted by our likes and dislikes, where we are in our lives at the moment, and a few circumstances that come to bear in the processing of it all. And every list is going to change every time we embrace a new wonder (or every six years, in the case of Rolling Stone.)

But back to Johnny Cash and "Folsom Prison Blues." The song DOES make the list, at No. 163, sandwiched between Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" and Ray Charles' "I Can't Stop Loving You."  And there are two others, "I Walk the Line" (No. 30) and "Ring of Fire" (No. 87, and my personal favorite).  So we can't harp too much on Cash.

We don't wish to harp at all. Then we get to thinking about some of the greatest songwriters we've encountered in our adult lives, artists who have truly moved the needle on our personal music dial, people like Townes Van Zant, Guy Clark, Steve Earle (whose lyrics to "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" appear above) and Lucinda Williams. Hell, let's go back a bit and include Woodie Guthrie, as well as Steve Goodman and John Prine.  And not a single song by any one of them makes the RS list.

And because we're gaining perspective on this it really shouldn't bother us at all. But when that special subscription offer for Rolling Stone -- once our bible, our most trusted source of music information -- tumbled out of the issue, the choice became an easy one. No thanks. Again.


  1. you must be missing the tropicana whistle along the boulevard and the smell of oranges...

  2. We're beatin a dead horse here but my big question is whatever happened to rock 'n' roll? Forty percent of that list is from the 1950-60s, but nobody's writing great stuff like Satisfaction today. Certainly not the Stones even though they're still around.