By Christopher Treacy
Covering traditional songs can sometimes get complicated. We want to honor the past by being careful not to erase it, but at the same time, we are culturally more nuanced than ever before. Or so we’d like to think, anyway. This makes it especially important to remember that playing and singing songs written by others is about inhabiting characters and telling stories rather than someone performing their own confessional poetry; they are two very different things.
In the case of our new CQ Roundup Song of the Week, an exclusive premiere, old-timey trio Tall Poppy String Band have served up a fun version of “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town,” a song that was first recorded in the 1920s, by most accounts. There’s a shifted pronoun in the TPSB update, which is retitled “The Train That Carried My Man From Town.” But as banjoist/vocalist Cameron DeWhitt explains, this was a choice more about dissolving elements of misogyny in the song than an expression of queerness.
In the liner notes for the forthcoming TPSB debut, due 7/29 (order here), DeWhitt lays it all out:
This is a song about the intersection of financial and sexual capital, male fragility, and how economic systems disrupt pleasure and connection by simultaneously mandating and discouraging fidelity.
And so it goes…
Taking the song at face value as a traditional tune, written in a completely different time, what’s loveable to you about it? Maybe this is about musical structures and rhythm more than lyric and storytelling.
Musically, this song never stood out to me until I heard the Doc Watson solo version in his Live From Chicago album. It’s one of the most sonically pleasing recordings I’ve ever heard, and a lot of that is his playing and musical choices. Specifically, I loved his relaxed, sonorous singing against his virtuosic fingerstyle guitar. When I started learning his version I quickly figured out that I would not be able to replicate that feeling, so I decided to go for loud, anxious, and unhinged, which I honestly think better communicates the text of the song.
This might be the first time I’ve heard a traditional cover where the pronoun was shifted to imply a queer viewpoint. Or, at least, that’s what I thought when I first listened. But in reading your liner notes, it’s a bit more than that. Can you talk some about the misogyny embedded in the original?
The version of “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town” that I adapted from Doc Watson depicts misogynistic ideas in almost every verse, but I’ll focus on the violent fantasy in the second verse. The speaker imagines his ex (and many others) dying in a trainwreck. Some men feel so entitled to the exclusive affection of women that when they feel jilted, it’s not enough for them to wish harm on the individual. They don’t feel like they’re being rejected by one woman; they feel like the promises of our patriarchal system have been broken. If cis men can’t experience patriarchal gender euphoria and have no other options, they may be tempted by terroristic levels of violence. This song shines a light on that style of homicidal ideation and its source; it’s all there in the original text.
Would you go as far as to say that the pronoun shift is somehow empowering?
No. If anything, the pronoun shift shows how patriarchy and anti-feminine sentiments can also exist in same-gender relationships. The speaker’s root desire in this version may be queer, but his attitude lacks queer imagination and courage; he is still stuck in heteronormativity. I suppose one could identify with the speaker’s ex who successfully abandons this awful man, takes his money, and finds someone more interesting. However, he’s arguably trying to cash in his sexual capital in a way that perpetuates the patriarchy too; is his new partner, the “dirty rounder,” someone he’s legitimately interested in, or another stepping stone to stability and power in a system that ultimately hates him? The text leaves it open-ended, but I don’t have any reason to assume that the speaker’s ex simply came to his senses in a moment of lucidity and self-respect.
Dabbling in traditional music as you do, I imagine you bump up against old ideals that don’t jibe with progressive thinking fairly often. Are there other examples of how you’ve made peace with this, individually or as a unit?
As a dabbler in old time, I resist the idea that old ideals aren’t progressive. Lots of old time music is critical of the criminal justice system, for instance. “Police come, didn’t wanna go, shot him in the head with my .44 this morning.” Murder ballads were usually intended to expose, condemn, and warn folks about misogynistic violence, not condone it. “My race is run beneath the sun / The devil is waiting for me / For I did murder that dear little girl / Whose name was Rose Connely.” And of course, there’s the famous fiddle tune “John Brown’s Dream,” commemorating the famous abolitionist who knew that the only way to deal with the slave-owning class was violence (still true today, if you ask me). “John Brown’s dream / John Brown dreamed the devil was dead.” There’s a lot of progressive thinking in old time music that we’re still trying to enact today.
Mostly the issue I run into with old time music is sensitivity. I seldom sing murder ballads about the killing of women, for instance, because even though I’m not a man, I often look like one, and it would be triggering for some women to watch me perform a song like “Down in the Willow Garden.” Then there are tunes with insensitive titles, like “Y***** Barber,” which by all accounts is a tribute to a real mixed-race barber named Arthur Berry. So when I play it, I call it “Arthur Berry” and avoid the slur. It’s a great tune with an innocent purpose; it just needs a sensitivity update.
“… how economic systems disrupt pleasure and connection by simultaneously mandating and discouraging fidelity.” — Care to elaborate?
The fourth verse introduces money into the narrative, “There goes my man. Won’t you bring him back? He’s got his hand in my money sack.” Our society deters singleness and non-monogamy in women and feminine folks with the threat of poverty. However, there’s an implicit perverse incentive to “trade up” when the opportunity arises. The third and fourth verses of this song indicate that financial stability are key factors in the speaker’s ex’s decision making. A more explicit example of this in folk music is “The House Carpenter,” where the female protagonist abandons her husband and kids to marry a foreign prince. I was talking to Elizabeth LaPrelle about it on my podcast Get Up in the Cool and she raised the question “Who can blame her?” (which is why she’s one of the most important ballad singers of our generation). Different versions of “The House Carpenter” seem to editorialize at the end. The more generous versions end with her grieving her decision, while other versions kill her in a shipwreck and send her to hell (another example of correlating infidelity with mass casualties). As for the speaker in “The Train…”, he’s missing out on genuine connection and fulfillment too. If he were able to experience his sexuality as something other than a measurement of his power, then maybe he could have appreciated his “jelly roll” experience for what it was: a delicious and expensive snack.
How is the TPSB version of this *musically* unique? Would you say that the way you’ve opted to cover it is a good example of “what you do,” as a unit, to a song when you cover it?
“The Train That Carried My Man From Town” was the closest we got to bluegrass on the album (due in large part to George’s monster fiddle breaks and fills), so we made sure to temper it with our old time sensibilities: I play a fretless, low-tuned, tackhead banjo on the recording and I’m mostly playing melody instead of comping, Mark gestures at the melody between old time style bass runs, and we added the willfully harsh major VI chord which has precedent in old time source recordings and has been a zeitgeist chord choice among revival players for the past few years. But our most significant (and high camp) addition to this song is our vocal train whistle impression: we sing a G diminished triad over an A chord, creating a flat 9 chord. This alarming dissonance clarifies that at the end of the day, after all the troubling sexual politics, the true villain in the eyes of the speaker is somehow not his unfaithful lover, but public transit. (Kidding!)
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He lives in Waitsfield, VT.