Notes from Meropi and Beto: Ice Factory Festival 2019: Songs About Trains

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“Wabash Cannonball”
Listen to the jingle
The rumble, and the roar

Beto: I really love this song. It’s such an iconic train song, and maybe the most identifiable one that is in the show. When we were thinking about the part of the show that is about what you would expect when you come see a show called “Songs about Trains”, it was pretty obvious to me that this is where Wabash should live. And I really loved how we played it! 

Meropi: Early on in the process of making this show, I was obsessed with trying to use onomatopoeia in the songs and music - in other words, having people actually make sounds that resemble the chug of a train, or a whistle within the song lyrics. That idea quickly fell away, but this is the one song from that category of train songs we were playing with that stayed in the show!
It also just has a ton of words which you have to sing really fast, which is always a fun thing to see performed onstage. :)

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“Poor Paddy”:
In eighteen hundred and forty-one
My corduroy breeches I put on 

Beto: I first learned this song from listening to The Pogues but it is one of the oldest songs in the show, from the 1850s if not earlier. There is something about how this song mixes tragedy and humor. How it laughs at working yourself to death and even then, you get no relief. In many ways, it’s the quintessential train song. And I get to play my bodhran in it, which is one of my favorite instruments to play!

Meropi: I love the way this song changes tempo throughout. In addition to mirroring the melancholy and physical exertion of the workday, it creates a great sense of anticipation and dramatic tension onstage!

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“Lonesome Train”
Lonesome train on a lonesome track
I’m going away ain’t coming back

Beto: When we first started playing around with the idea of doing “Songs about Trains”, a part of the reason I wanted to do it was to play fun music with fun people. This crew right here, we had a hell of a fun time playing these songs, and the opening is a great moment when you see that happen. “Lonesome Train” is just a blast.

Meropi: And a great concert-style opener to the show!

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“Rock Island Line”:
If you wanna ride, you gotta ride it like you find it,
Get your ticket at the station to the Rock Island Line

Beto: Way up there on the list of my favorite moments in this show, and favorite songs, has to be the “Rock Island Line”. There is a reason why we are stomping and clapping and smiling in this photo. It’s also a great example of the subgenre of train songs that are about specific train lines, and how they connect with people, communities, and cultures. It’s a very iconic train song, and I see lots of folks clapping along with us!

Meropi: This is one of the few call-and-response songs in the show. While call-and-response has deep roots in African and African American musical tradition overall, it has specific significance to train music. The “caller” or leader of a section gang (a group of railroad workers), would sing a call, and the workers would respond on a specific rhythm while completing a very difficult physical task. The section gang would use the music to unify their strength toward a single goal, and to stay in solidarity with each other, making sure nobody would be seen as working the slowest. The section gangs who sang these songs became known as gandy dancers.

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“Poor Paddy”
I was wearing corduroy breeches, digging ditches
Pulling switches, dodging pitches
I was working on the railway

Beto: It’s a special kind of theatre nerd that gets excited about being in a show like “Songs about Trains”. You have to act, sing, move around, and in some cases, play an instrument, maybe more than one…and you have to be excited about the fact you are going to do so. Erica Huang played four different instruments in the show, and rocked them all! We had a lotta fun playing Poor Paddy together. She is my kind of theatre nerd.

Meropi: This is one of the few songs that actually talks about some of the tasks railroad workers had to do. I love the story-songs that actually tell us about the lives of the people who worked the tracks!

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“Work Medley/Drill Ye Tarriers”:
And when next payday it came around
Jim Goff a dollar short was found
When he asked, “what for?”, came this reply
“You were docked for the time you were up in the sky!”
And drill ye tarriers drill

Beto: The moment that Brittany Grier joined the team it was like “damn.” The show just started to go into overdrive. This section of the show is so incredible and I love they way the energy flows between us and focuses on Brittney whose movement is an abstract take on the ideas of physical labor and exhaustion.

Meropi: Our Movement & Rhythm Specialist, Joya Powell, has been with the show since the beginning and brought Brittany into the project during a workshop earlier this year. Together they devised a movement score that brought a whole new dimension to the performance. Brittany is also a member of Joya’s company, Movement of the People Dance Company [hyperlink] - be sure to check out their amazing work!

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“I Hate that Train Called the M&O”:
When he was leaving
I couldn’t hear nothing but that whistle blow
And the man at the throttle
Lord he wasn’t coming back no more

Beto: This song always brings down the house. There is something about a good, classic blues song, that it hits your blood from the moment it starts.  It’s one of the most important musical contributions the U.S. gave to the world and influenced pretty much every musical genre in his country that has come sense. Remi really grabbed that idea, and the audience.

Meropi: It’s also somewhat rare to have a song from a female perspective about trains. Yes, it’s your classic “missing my man” song, but is also just so iconic and such a satisfying ride. And of course it also touches on the eternal and universal ideas of love and heartbreak. This song has been with the show since the beginning and remains a huge part of the emotional arc of the show.