Discover Songs

ALISON STEWART, host:

Now the lure of train hopping was too strong for one of our won staffers.

In a former life, our Web editor Laura Conaway and her brother both were seduced by the sights and sounds of the rails and in this best song in the world today essay. Laura explains why the experience is an ever lasting one.

LAURA CONAWAY: I haven't been on nearly as many trains as William Vollmann. In "Riding Toward Everywhere," he writes about a world of violence and addiction by the rails. I've never passed through those junctions but I have been inside a box car and I've seen the world that way.

If you ever climbed into a cold metal car and you feel the wheels kachunk into motion, that sound and the sights that go with it as the country appearing and disappearing frame by frame, they're gong to hunt you for the rest of your life. Now let's face it, trains hunt us anyway, even from a distance. They certainly hunted Hank Williams.

(Soundbite of song, "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) was ridin' Number Nine, headin' south from Caroline. I heard that lonesome whistle blow.

CONAWAY: Trains show up all over our music. I hopped my first freight with a friend in New England a couple of years after college and my brain has never been the same. Being on the freight amplifies your experience of your mind, sort of the way a drug might or wearing headphones on a walk around the city, except that it's real. You really are in a box car. You really did slip past these kids playing touch football or that moose or that dog that's running to catch up with the engine. If you see the world that way, you can't unsee it. You'll plea with God for another chance at it.

(Soundbite of song, "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle")

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) I heard that lonesome whistle blow.

CONAWAY: So I told my kid brother Brian and he started wanting it.

(Soundbite of song, "Casey Junior")

Unidentified Man: All aboard. Let's go.

CONAWAY: I should have realized how strong the trains pull on kids too.

(Soundbite of song, "Casey Junior")

FAY LOVSKY WITH THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (vocal group): (Singing) Casey Junior's comin' down the track. Comin' down the track with a smokey stack. Hear him puffin' comin' 'round the hill. Casey's here to thrill, every Jack and Jill.

CONAWAY: I ended up raising my brother for a good part of his childhood. Right about the time he hit 11 or 12, Ryan took to the rails and I mean really took to him. He'd go missing around supper time and then in the morning, we'd get a call from some police officer in some little town. I'd drive and go pick him up. And he come out with his back pack and all these pots and pans he tied on the back of it clattering. We throw it in the station wagon and then drive home with me pounding on the dashboard and hollered at him the entire way. Yet whenever he went away for summer camp or a visit home, I got another chance to catch out.

(Soundbite of song, "Driver 8")

R.E.M. (Rock Band): (Singing) And the train conductor says take a break Driver 8. Driver 8 take a break. We've been on this shift too long.

CONAWAY: My brother since surpassed me in freight riding. Ryan was super young and a guy and he had a lot less to lose like crossing the boarder into Canada on the roof a round hole hopper. One time, we read a summer stop production of Hamlet and just at the grave scene where Hamlet jumps up with that skull in his hand, a train came blowing through the night outside. My head turned towards the sound and I felt my brother grow tense beside me. Each of us knowing first hand the junction it had passed through. Only him knowing first hand the where it was heading.

I was stuck with dreams of trains. My sleeping hours overflow of images of families riding along in boxcars, outfitted with living room furniture.

(Soundbite of song, "Hobo's Meditation")

Ms. DOLLY PARTON, Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS and Ms. LINDA RONSTADT (Singers): (Singing) Will there be any freight trains in heaven? Any boxcars in which we might hide?

CONAWAY: Toward the end of our time together, I took Ryan for a physical with a new doctor. The office was in an old train depot and we walked in to find an enormous map of the U.S. freight system. My brother stopped, we stared up at it, taking in the information of possible rides. I asked my brother if he ever dreamed about freight trains. He kept his eyes on the rail map and told me, all the time, all the time. I bet anything William Vollmann sees trains in his sleep, too, now that he's been on so many and published a book about it.

And so William Vollmann, you strange and wonderful writer, I dedicate to you a strange and wonderful song, the best song in the world today, Robin Hitchcock's "I Often Dream Of Trains."

(Soundbite of song, "I Often Dream of Trains")

Mr. ROBIN HITCHCOCK (Singer): (Singing) I often dream of trains when I'm alone. I ride on them into another zone. I dream of them constantly. Heading for paradise or Basingstoke or Reading. I often dream of trains when I'm awake. They ride along beside a frozen lake. And there in the buffet car I wait for eternity or Basingstoke or Reading. I often dream of trains till it gets light. The summer turns to winter overnight. The leaves fall so suddenly. The sun sets at four o'clock. Exactly what I'm dreading.

STEWART: That's Robin Hitchcock's "I Often Dream Of Trains." Our entry of best song in the world today. That was submitted by our Web editor Laura Conaway and that piece is produced by our director Jacob Ganz.

(Soundbite of song, "I Often Dream of Trains")

Mr. HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Maybe we'll meet one night out in the corridor. I'm waiting for you baby. Baby. Baby. Baby. Baby.

STEWART: And just in case you were wondering in that wonderful piece which is quite music rich. First of all, yes. Laura is from the south, Alabama. And the other songs you heard in there, what did we hear, Rachel?

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

We heard some really good stuff. We hear Hank Williams, "Lonesome Whistle." We heard "Casey Junior" from the soundtrack to the Disney "Dumbo." Remember that film?

STEWART: R.E.M. "Driver 8," one of my favorites as well as Trio meaning Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, "Hobo's Meditation."

MARTIN: And we also heard our best son in the world, Robin Hitchcock "I Often Dream of Trains."

STEWART: As we get ready to rumble with some politics and a little bit of cubicle culture about messy offices, we leave you with a little bit of Hank Williams. Join us in the other side of this quick break. We are THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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