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Railroad Songs

Music in the 1920s reflected America's continuing fascination with railroading. The growing popularity and falling price of 78 rpm recordings made music available to everyone, which meant that jazz, blues, and popular music would be preserved along with more "respectable" works.

Black musicians frequently mimicked train sounds with voice or instrument, basing hundreds of jazz pieces, shuffles, instrumentals, and marches on the rhythms of the rails. Hillbilly music-exemplified by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the "Singing Brake-man"-included everything from traditional ballads like "The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train" to fast-paced violin and banjo pieces suggestive of steam locomotives.

Railroad work songs and train wreck songs-like the plaintive "Engine 143" or the catchy "Wreck of the Old 97"-became major hits and helped found the genre of country & western music.

The railroad was a hook in countless songs. In the 1927 ditty "Hello Swanee," the singer implores, "Please, Mr. Conductor, don't give me air; Please, Mr. Conductor, I haven't got the fare." Everyone back then knew what "give me the air" meant: As the air brakes stopped the train, the ticketless passenger was unceremoniously shown the door.

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