Tomorrow, we are taking my six year old son to see Thomas the Tank Engine. This is an actual train done up to look like Thomas, with rides available, and other tie-in events. In short, kiddie capitalism at its finest. But he’s going to love it, so we’re going. It’s a two hour drive each way for us, so I’ve been working on a CD of train songs for the ride. Amazingly, I had trouble figuring out what my theme would be for this post. You know, “Can’t concentrate, too many train songs!” Sometimes the obvious really has to whap me in the head hard before I listen.
Anyway, like anyone, I had quite a collection of train songs to choose from, but somehow, I was lacking versions of some classic songs. So, I went shopping in Amazon’s mp3 store, and what I found surprised me. Some of my favorite versions of these songs turned out to be by artists even I had not heard of before today.
Mean Mary and Jamestown: Orange Blossom Special
Orange Blossom Special is usually done as an instrumental, but I knew I had heard words for it before. I wanted the words, because I felt that my son would enjoy the song more that way. The number of available versions of this one is almost paralyzing, and I very nearly missed this one. Mean Mary is Mary James. She sings in a powerful country alto, with occasional soprano whoops. She doesn’t yodel on this one, but I get the feeling she could do a great job of it. Any good version of Orange Blossom Special must have fiddle, and that is here. But the train rhythm here is played rockabilly style, on drums, bass, and electric guitar. It’s not a combination that I would have thought of for this song, but it really works.
David Holt: Wabash Cannonball
Wabash Cannonball is a song that my father remembered fondly from his childhood. It became part of mine, because he would sing it around the house at odd moments. David Holt is not only a fine singer and musician, but he is also one of the best-known storytellers in the United States. I think my father would have liked his version of this one.
Franny and the Fireballs: Chattanooga Choo-Choo
In the early 1970s, there was a revival of music from the 1950s. Until today, I had not known that this revival reached as far as Germany. Franny and the Fireballs modeled themselves after Bill Haley and the Comets, who also did a version of this one. But, to me, Franny and the Fireballs’ Chattanooga Choo-Choo retains more of the jazz feel of the original than Haley’s version did. So this may not be what they were trying for, but their version is better for it.
Steve Goodman: City of New Orleans
On the other hand, sometimes there is no improving on the original. I know Arlo Guthrie had the hit, but I’ve always preferred Steve Goodman’s take on his own song. Goodman had a sunniness that no one else could ever match, and this song is the perfect explanation of what I mean by that.
Spotlight Song of the Week:
Alice Tong: Love Painting
As far as I can tell, Alice Tong hasn’t made much of a mark outside of the San Francisco area where she lives. That needs to change. She sings in a sultry alto, but she can also reach well into the soprano range at times with out straining. I’m guessing that she has at least a three octave range, and she uses it very well indeed. On please be brave before the lions they come, she plays six instruments. Impressive, but that would all be meaningless if she didn’t back it up with solid songs and performances. Alice Tong does that. Her songs feature mostly acoustic instruments, with the cello used particularly well. The style is somewhere between folk and country, but also with a distinct jazzy feel. And her voice is just amazing. On Love Painting, you will hear the quiet passion she expresses so well. Only later will you notice that the words present a fresh metaphor for love, and that Tong writes beautifully as well. The multiple talents on display in this song hold through the entire album. Definitely check this one out.