The True Stories Behind 5 Classic Railway Tunes
1. “I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THE RAILROAD”
Originally, the song was about levees. Black laborers popularized it in the 1830s, later switching the lyrics as they began building railroads. The name “Dinah” typically referred to a female slave. And back then, the lyrics were PG-13. One verse goes: “Someone’s making love to Dinah / Someone’s making love I know. / Someone’s making love to Dinah, / ’cause I can’t hear the old banjo.” (Of course, back then, “making love” meant flirting.)
2. “DOWNTOWN TRAIN”
Although Tom Waits wrote the song, Rod Stewart made it a mainstream hit in 1989. It makes sense: Rod Stewart is a model train nut. While touring, he often works on train set pieces to relax. His Beverly Hills home boasts a sprawling 23 x 124-foot landscape of post-war Manhattan and Chicago, which he built himself. It almost takes up the whole third floor!
3. “BALLAD OF JOHN HENRY”
According to historian Scott R. Nelson, John William Henry was a free black Union soldier who had been jailed in Virginia during the 1870s. Henry was leased to a railway to help blast tunnels, but unlike the myth, he probably didn’t die from a burst heart. Instead, the infamous steam drills, which kicked up clouds of silica dust, likely caused Henry to die of silicosis, a lung disease. However, historians still argue whether he or another real-life John Henry inspired the song.
4. "RHAPSODY IN BLUE"
George Gershwin was en route to Boston when he dreamed up Rhapsody. “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is often so stimulating to a composer—I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise ... and there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end,” he told biographer Isaac Goldberg.
5. “CRAZY TRAIN”
Black Sabbath’s two model railroad junkies cooked up this song in 1980. Guitarist Randy Rhoads and bassist Bob Daisley—both model train collectors—were working on riffs when Randy’s pedals made a “weird kind of chugging sound” in the amp. “Randy, that sounds like a train,” Bob said, recalling the event for the website Songfacts. “But it sounds nuts—a crazy train.”