November 6, 2012

The Grateful Dead and Trains (Guest Post)

by Ben Miller

As a lifelong Grateful Dead fan, and someone who grew up enthralled by all things train and railroad related (as many boys do), I've often been fascinated by the amount of references to trains and railroads that appear in Grateful Dead songs, both original and cover. To illustrate this connection between trains and the Grateful Dead, I have compiled a list of (hopefully) every song that contains a reference to trains or the railroad in some way. Please let me know if there are any that I have missed. The list is split into three parts: originals, common covers, and rare covers/guest songs. Some songs have multiple train references, but I have included one lyric line (or the reason for making this list) in parentheses.


Casey Jones ("Driving that train, high on cocaine")
Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks) (song title)
Childhood's End ("When I was hoppin' freights")
China Cat Sunflower ("double-E waterfall" - as in "flaggin' down the double-E")
He's Gone ("Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track")
Jack Straw ("Gotta go to Tulsa, first train we can ride")
Lazy River Road ("Bright blue box cars, train by train")
Might As Well ("Long train running from coast to coast")
New Potato Caboose (song title)
New Speedway Boogie ("This train's got to run today")
Operator ("My rider left upon the Midnight Flyer")
So Many Roads ("Thought I heard that KC whistle moaning sweet and low")
Tennessee Jed ("Listen to the whistle of the evening train")
Terrapin Station ("But the train's put its brakes on and the whistle is screaming")
They Love Each Other ("It's nothing they explain, it's like a diesel train")
Tons Of Steel ("She's more a roller-coaster than the train I used to know")
Unbroken Chain ("Ride you out on a cold railroad and nail you to a cross")


Beat It On Down The Line ("I'll be waiting at the station, Lord, when that train pulls on by")
Big Railroad Blues ("Well that train's rolling down, she's rolling down the line")
Dark Hollow ("So blow your whistle freight train, take me far on down the track")
I Know You Rider ("I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train")
Johnny B. Goode ("Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track")
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds ("Picture yourself on a train in a station")
Mama Tried ("On a freight train leaving town, not knowing where I'm bound")
Me And Bobby McGee ("Busted flat in Baton Rouge and waiting for a train")
Monkey And The Engineer ("Big locomotive right on time")
Promised Land ("Straight up I bought me a through train ticket")
Smokestack Lightnin' ("Whoa-oh, stop your train, let a hobo ride")
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again ("Stay away from the railroad line")
The Weight ("Catch a Cannonball now to take me down the line") 
Walkin' Blues ("Leavin' in the morning if I have to ride the blinds")
When I Paint My Masterpiece ("Train wheels running through the back of my memory")


Are You Lonely For Me ("It's the last train to Jacksonville")
Ballad Of Casey Jones ("Around the bend came a passenger train")
California Earthquake (Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On) ("Lord it sounded like a thousand trains were screaming underground")
Early Morning Rain ("You can't jump a jet plane like you can a railroad train")
Green Green Grass Of Home ("The old home town looks the same as I step down from the train")
How Long Blues ("Hate that train, train that carried my baby away")
In The Pines ("The longest train I ever saw was down that northern line")
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry ("Don't say I didn't warn you when your train gets lost")
Kansas City ("Well I might take a plane, might take a train")
K.C. Moan ("Well I thought I heard that K.C. whistle moan")
Let It Rock ("Can't stop the train, we got to let it roll on")
Little Sadie ("Put me on the train and sent me back")
Mystery Train ("Train I ride, fifteen coaches long")
Slow Train ("There's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend")
Two Trains Running ("Well there's two trains a-coming")
Visions Of Johanna ("They whisper of escapades out on the "D" train")

[The Dead also played Wabash Cannonball and Railroading on the Great Divide on 6/11/69, but no tape survives. The Garcia Band also played a number of other train songs, not listed here.]


This page looks at the railroad theme in Grateful Dead songs:

Phil Lesh wrote of the Festival Express, "All of the artists involved were of that generation that still considered trains as magnets of adventure and romance, much of our music celebrating the 'high lonesome sound' of train whistles in the night. Riding the rails, like running away with the circus, was a reasonable alternative to the nine-to-five gray-flannel treadmill that had consumed the majority of our contemporaries. The train spoke of freedom, of mythical journeys and heroic quests..."

He talked about one adventure he had in 1960:
"I persuaded my parents to let me try a pretty wild thing for a 20-year-old in those days: hitchhiking to Calgary to try and find work in the oil fields. That's what we were trying to do - got as far as Spokane... That led to one of the great experiences of my life, which was riding the rails - a boxcar, from Spokane back to Seattle. What an experience! can't get away with that anymore. The trains are fucked up... It only took like 36 hours, maybe less. I remember sneaking on in the early hours of the morning, and - coming out of Spokane on the railroad - Spokane is on a big bluff, and there's this river at the bottom. The train goes across the river on the other side from Spokane, and there you are looking at this incredible panorama. I'm sure it's changed since... We played there once, but it wasn't the same - we flew in." [interview with David Gans '81]

(a 1928 article on the original Casey Jones)
(a history of Casey Jones recordings)

Lesh wrote in his book:
"We received an offer to play three days of a 'Trips Festival' in Vancouver, British Columbia. It seemed like a good opportunity to bring our music to a new audience... Since we couldn't afford to fly, the band took the train, leaving Oakland one morning and arriving the next day, while the gear drove up in a truck. While on the train, we took smoke breaks in the only place where we could have a little privacy: the open vestibule between the cars. At one point, we were standing out there entranced by the rhythm of the wheels clickety-clacking over the welds in the rails; Billy and I looked at each other and just knew - we simultaneously burst out, 'We can play this!' This later turned into Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)... Based on the train rhythm, it had only one chord and was played at blistering tempo...
At the next moment, the train lurched, and Jerry, who was standing near the exit, lost his footing and started to fall! Outward! Quick as a mongoose, Bobby reached out and grabbed his shirt, pulling him back into the car just as another train roared past in the opposite direction at a closing speed of what seemed like 200 miles per hour. Whew!"
[Alas, Caution was actually written the year before this train ride, but it's a good story...]

Garcia on the Festival Express:
"That was the best time I've had in rock and roll. It was our train, it was the musicians' train. There were no straight people. There wasn't any show biz bullshit. There weren't any fans, there were nothing but musicians on the train. So immediately we started pulling furniture out of the two club cars and putting amplifiers and drums in. Jam sessions all the way across Canada, man. Played music all the way across Canada, and we juiced. Everybody juiced because nobody brought dope into Canada, everybody was chickenshit. [It lasted] about five days, six days maybe, but it was really fucking fun. Everybody got to be such good friends in that little world. It was like a musicians' convention with no public allowed... You name it, we did it. We had every conceivable kind of configuration that you could imagine, man. We had singers, lots of singers on the train, all kinds of trips. The most incredible combination of voices, like Delaney and Bonnie and Janis with Buddy Guy singing together, or Bonnie and Buddy Guy, or... Oh hey, man, there was one jam session with Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, me and Weir from our band, Rick Danko, Delaney and Bonnie and Eric Andersen... They got it all down on film. It'll really be far out." (from the Jazz&Pop interview, Feb '71)


  1. Another way to think about it is also they were one of the last generations to have space arranged by trains and the first generation to be influenced by the new division of the country: the interstate highway which connected the country as well as a host of unpleasant side effects, notably in racial stratification of cities and suburbs. Historically, railroads, their owners and managers, and their needs carved up the United States and the railroad (as an abstract) and its priorities was a central element of life, travel, and shipping.

    The railroad for them is nostalgia as much as the automobile and the Jack Kerouac generation who found themselves on the road.

  2. bk, this is actually a very profound point. The interstate highway system followed the railroad (I70=Kansas and Pacific, I80=Central and Union Pacific, etc), but highway interchanges keep their passengers isolated. A railway junction was an engine for commerce and exchange, whereas a highway interchange was just a cloverleaf. Are you familiar with the work of Reyner Banham?

  3. Nope, I haven't read any of his work. What a lot of people don't comprehend is that the Grateful Dead are a powerful reflection of their times as they mediated cultural change while weaving disparate elements of American music and history into a powerful whole. Thanks for the tip on Banham. I'll have to check him out.

  4. “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.” Garcia was a genius and there really isn’t anybody else like the dead. Great post keep up the hard work. Check these out IStillGotMyGuitar.

    1. Though that quote is common on the web, I believe it's a fake. It doesn't sound like Garcia; it sounds like a misquotation of Bill Graham.
      Your comment also looks like spam to me, but I'll leave it up for now.

  5. Trains were obviously on Dan Healy's mind when he was discussing the making of the Anthem album. From the "Anthem to Beauty" dvd: "It was as seamless as possible...frequently the train would leave the track during the song... the song train would go trucking through the bushes...when that version ran off the track. I would get another version of the performance." And "It became more fun to have the train not stop on the track."

  6. Looking at poster art, it should be noted that the posters for the Dead/Quicksilver Tour of the Great Pacific Northwest in winter '68 prominently feature a 19th-century train. The implication is evident: get on board!

  7. I suppose that "Funiculi, Funicula", whose tune the Dead sometimes played during concerts as filler while waiting for a technical issue to get fixed, qualifies as a railroad song.

  8. A tidbit from John Brackett's recent book Live Dead:

    In 1976, Steve Brown was considering a number of archival releases the Dead could put out on their own label. Among these was "Railroad Blues," an album of songs on a train theme. Brown had these picked out:

    1. Big Railroad Blues (acoustic Fillmore 9/20/70)
    2. Glendale Train (inst. Good Old Boys outtake)
    3. Orange Blossom Special (Old & in the Way live)
    4. Mystery Train (Garcia Reflections outtake)
    5. Freight Train (Garcia Reflections outtake)
    6. I Know You Rider (live Dead)
    7. Big Railroad Blues (electric live Dead)
    8. Casey Jones (electric live Dead)
    9. Let It Rock (Garcia Band live)
    10. That Train (Hunter, from Rum Runners)