Freight Train Blues

"Freight Train Blues" is an early American hillbilly-style country music song written by John Lair. He wrote it for Red Foley, who recorded the song with the title "I Got the Freight Train Blues" in 1934. The tune was subsequently recorded by several musicians, with popular renditions by Roy Acuff in 1936 and 1947. Bob Dylan later adapted it for his self-titled debut album (1962).

"I Got the Freight Train Blues"
Single by Rambling Red Foley acc. by Cumberland Ridge Runners
B-side"Echoes of My Plantation Home"
Released1934 (1934)
RecordedChicago, c.March 21, 1934
Songwriter(s)John Lair

Composition and recordingEdit

Joh Lair was a Kentucky native, who had a long career in the music industry.[2] He was a prolific songwriter and was responsible for about 500 compositions.[3] In an interview, he explained that he wrote the song "in memory of the sound of the train that punctuated his youth in the southern United States".[3] His lyrics include:

I was born in Dixie in a boomer shed
Just a little shanty by the railroad track
Freight train was it taught me how to cry
The holler of the driver was my lullaby[3]

Lair wrote the song for fellow Kentuckian Red Foley, who recorded it in Chicago around March 21, 1934.[1] Foley was backed by the Cumberland Ridge Runners, a string band which included Lair and others who played a variety of instruments, such as fiddle, dulcimer, banjo, and mandolin.[4]

In 1934, Foley's recording was issued simultaneously by several American Record Corporation (ARC) labels, including Banner, Conqueror, Perfect, Melotone, Romeo, and Oriole.[1] The 78 rpm record was released before music publications such as Billboard tracked sales of hillbilly or country singles. The song is included on Foley anthologies, such as Old Shep: The Red Foley Recordings 1933-1950 (Bear Family Records, 2006).[5]

Roy Acuff renditionsEdit

"Freight Train Blues"
Single by Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseeans
B-side"Wabash Cannon Ball"
ReleasedJuly 1937 (1937-07)
RecordedChicago, October 21, 1936

Roy Acuff recorded his first version of "Freight Train Blues" in Chicago on October 21, 1936, with his group, billed as "Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseeans".[7] Group harmonica player Sam "Dynamite" Hatcher, who "prefer[red] blues-tinged numbers",[8] provided the vocal, while Acuff added the simulated train whistle.[9] Dobro player Clell Summey performed the slide guitar fills that run through out the song.[8]

Vocalion Records issued it as a single in July 1937, with "Wabash Cannon Ball" as the flip-side.[10] However, only "Wabash Cannon Ball" is included in Billboard's listings of "American Folk Tunes", where it appeared at least 25 times between 1939 and 1943.[10]

The popularity of the record led Columbia Records to arrange for Acuff record another version.[9] The session took place in Hollywood, California, in January 1947, with Acuff's backing band, the Smoky Mountain Boys.[11] This time, Acuff provided his own vocal and modified the lyrics, including reordering the first verse:[12]

I was born in Dixie in a boomer's shack
Just a little shanty by the railroad track
The humming of the drivers was my lullaby
And a freight train whistle taught me how to cry.

Notation for the 1947 version shows a key of C major with a "shuffle" tempo of 160 beats per minute in common or 4/4 time.[13] Acuff's vocal on the chorus shifts between his normal range and a falsetto.[13] Although his voice lowered over the years and prompted him to forgo some tunes in his repertoire, he continued to perform "Freight Train Blues" and could "even do a Jimmie Rodgers type yodel".[14]

Columbia released the single in 1947, again with "Wabash Cannon Ball" (also re-recorded) as the single's flip side.[10] In October 1947, Columbia packaged four of Acuff's 78s (eight songs) together as a early album, with the title Songs of the Smoky Mountains.[10] "Freight Train Blues" appears on several Acuff anthologies, including the Columbia albums Greatest Hits (1970)[15] and The Essential Roy Acuff: 1936–1949 (1992).[16]

Bob Dylan versionEdit

"Freight Train Blues" was the last song Bob Dylan recorded to appear on his debut album, Bob Dylan (1962).[3] The recording session took place at Columbia's studios in New York City on November 22, 1961.[3] The album notes indicate that the song "was adapted from an old disk by Roy Acuff".[17] However, unlike Acuff's or Foley's renditions, Dylan performs it as a solo piece, with his vocal accompanied by guitar and harmonica.[3] He also plays the song at a unusually fast tempo for a folk song,[18] which several biographers have commented on:

  • "This old Roy Acuff number is one of the funniest early Dylan songs. Not only is the song taken at a breakneck tempo, it also features Dylan's longest recorded note—over 25 seconds!"[19]
  • "His vocal performance, although marked with some ironies, barely follows the tempo on the upper parts. Bob is on the verge of derailing. Strange for a song called 'Freight Train Blues'!"[3]
  • "'Freight Train Blues' was played so fast that the articulation of the words seems impossible and the long, long, long enunciation of the oooooo in the chorus is as haunting as a train whistle crossing North Dakota."[20]
  • "'Freight Train Blues' [and two other songs on his debut album] are remarkable for their frantic pacing, along with their blues-based vocal stylings."[18]

Dylan also added some new lyrics and at various times, Columbia has listed the song as being in the "public domain"[17] or "arranged by B. Dylan".[21] However, author Todd Harvey has identified John Lair's 1930s composition as the base for the songs "most commonly performed by folk revivalists and country musicians".[22]


  1. ^ Foley's single was released by several American Record Corporation (ARC) labels, including Banner, Conqueror, Perfect, Melotone, Romeo, and Oriole.[1]
  2. ^ Acuff's single was released by several American Record Corporation (ARC) labels, including Vocalion, Okeh, and Conqueror.[6]


  1. ^ a b c Russell 2004, p. 351.
  2. ^ Chadbourne, Eugene. "John Lair – Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved January 9, 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Margotin & Guesdon 2015, "Freight Train Blues" section.
  4. ^ Harkins 2004, pp. 82–83.
  5. ^ "Old Shep: The Red Foley Recordings 1933-1950 – Overview". AllMusic. Retrieved January 8, 2022.
  6. ^ Russell 2004, p. 48.
  7. ^ Cohen 2000, p. 525.
  8. ^ a b Wolfe 2015, Chapter 16.
  9. ^ a b Cohen 2000, pp. 525–526.
  10. ^ a b c d Sullivan 2013, p. 67.
  11. ^ Cohen 2000, p. 526.
  12. ^ Cohen 2000, p. 524–525.
  13. ^ a b Cohen 2000, p. 524.
  14. ^ Schlappi 1997, p. 107.
  15. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Roy Acuff: Greatest Hits [Columbia] – Review". AllMusic. Retrieved January 8, 2022.
  16. ^ Jurek, Thom. "The Essential Roy Acuff: 1936–1949 – Review". AllMusic. Retrieved January 8, 2022.
  17. ^ a b Williams 1962, Back cover.
  18. ^ a b Starr 2021, eBook.
  19. ^ Nogowski 2008, p. 15.
  20. ^ Hales 2014, p. 258.
  21. ^ Bob Dylan (Reissue album notes). Bob Dylan. New York City: Columbia Records. 1985. CD label. CK 94239.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  22. ^ Harvey 2001, p. 31.