Trains and Music: "August Train" by Justin King


The song above is a great example of the kind of mellow, acoustic instrumentals you will find all throughout Justin King’s album “Le Bleu”. I don’t know much about Justin King except that he is both a talented photographer and guitarist whose work is composed with a broad palette of technical skill and writing capability. This album has something to offer as both background music for the listeners who are busy working on other things or foreground music for the concentrated enthusiast.

Aside from the disarming and relaxing qualities of this particular song, and others like it, one aspect that I particularly enjoy is the imagery. There are no lyrics so the title is the only direct image we are given: August Train. After that, who knows what scenes or emotions the listener will experience? Some may interpret this song as joyful while others may not. Some may picture a city subway commute while others may imagine a locomotive slowly winding through vast country hills, an angular trail of white clouds billowing from the smokestack. Some may wonder about where the train is heading or where it is coming from, whether you as the listener are a passenger on this train or an outside observer, and what the significance of August is. Whatever the case, the song is as interactive as you would like it to be.

One interesting aspect about this song that I would like to ponder is the train. There are many common themes that show up in all sorts of songs throughout history: love, conflict, heart-break, resolution, victory, friendships, social commentary, etcetera. Within those themes the song-writers have a wealth of imagery with which to convey those themes. I find that trains have made an appearance in songs from a variety of genres and time-periods. From old-time folk songs like “The Wabash Cannonball“, to the contemporary “Stop This Train” by pop-blues giant John Mayer, the analogy continues to stand the test of time.

What is it about trains that provide such potent, long-standing vessels for conveying meaning? It was an understandable metaphor back in the early 19th and 20th centuries when trains were the primary, relatively new and exciting mode of transportation. That’s not so much the case today as cars and airplanes have taken over that arena, but trains are remain a familiar reference point for songwriters and their audiences.

Why?

There are a few things we can infer: The experience of being alive implies motion. Life chugs along the rails of time at a set pace that feels slow at times and alarmingly fast at others. Trains are also driven by an exclusive group of conductors and populated by a broad group of passengers. Generally speaking, the vast majority of the audience listening to writers that employ train devices in their work has had way more experience being a train passenger as opposed to a train conductor. While passengers can freely conduct themselves within the train, they can do nothing to control its speed or direction. They feel and respond the rumblings of the train as it climbs over the tracks, watching fellow passengers arriving and departing as well as the scenery that scrolls by the window.

Is the art of living not like that? Don’t we, at times, feel the sharp contrast between the few things we can control and those that we cannot when we feel the jolts of life climbing through the rocky terrain of transitions, losses, and adjustments? Don’t we sometimes wish we were the conductor so that we could change the pace, the scenery, the direction of things? On the other hand, what a ride this is. What a wonder it is to be taken to places you never would have imagined. What blessings are some of those special, unexpected details of life that enter as subtly as a passenger climbing aboard and sitting next to us yet leave us indelibly changed forever.

These are observations, emotions, and reflections that come to everyone in due time. These are the questions that are shrouded in story and mystery. In other words, these are the ingredients for great songs. Think of a song that is particularly meaningful to you. What makes it meaningful? The memories it stirs? Nameless emotions that are at once so hard to describe in words yet are perfectly framed by the music? The lyrical content that seems to have been written about your own personal experience?

I think it is safe to say that all writers want to connect with their audience to some degree.

It honestly doesn’t take much.

Sometimes it is as simple as turning to your fellow passenger with a song, story, conversation, or even a simple smile that says, “What a ride.”

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