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Ballin' the Jack

I was thinking about the boogie woogie piano style the other day, and how it seemed to be an imitation of train sounds. The steady, rhythmical eight-to-the-bar left hand is the train moving down the track, while the chords in the right hand represent train whistle riffs.

We shouldn't underestimate the importance of train whistles for American popular music. Or for that matter, the symbolic importance of trains in our culture. Walt Whitman:

"thy measured dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive"

Modern train whistles are push button, which doesn't give the engineers a lot control when sounding the whistle, but back in the day they worked with a pull cord, which allowed the engineers to develop their own "signatures." I suppose the typical way of blowing it was long, long, short, short, but by the late nineteenth century variations had arisen to the extent that the whistle became a sort of musical instrument.

In Jesse Fuller's "Leaving Memphis, Frisco Bound," he talks about meeting another hobo (hobo = "antihero of techno progress") who tells him how the engineer's wife Mary lives in a house near the tracks and how the engineer says hello to her with his whistle as he rolls by: "Ma-rrrrrry....."

Harmonicas have notoriously been used to represent the sound of the train whistle, as have pedal steel guitars, and even the horn sections of big bands. Count Basie has been said to have "loved everything about trains," while the Ellington songbook includes a ton of songs about trains, most famously Strayhorn's "Take the A Train."

We always think of the automobile as an emblem of the freedom of movement. But this modern idea for many decades was associated rather with the train. From the train you could see the panorama of landscape roll by.

I miss hearing trains roll by. At a hotel in Knoxville, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a passing train. "Where am I?" I had to ask myself.

"Ballin' the jack" meant rolling as fast as you could, and developed other meanings, like gambling all your money on one hand of cards, or even having sex. The jack was the locomotive, "balling" comes from "high balling," a hand signal that the engineer would give to start the train rolling.

I imagine a steam locomotive rolling about 95 miles an hour across the plains, the engineer playing the whistle. A lovely thought. Push button whistles, diesel trains, oh well. At least there still ARE trains out there.

sources: random websites, Joel Dinerstein's Swinging the Machine.



December 2018



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