"...Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track,
He's gone and nothing's gonna bring him back"

The Railroad As Metaphor
An Essay By Ken Rattenne
for the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
By David Dodd
Kraemer Family Library, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Exclusive to the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics Page
©1997-2010 by Ken Rattenne (krattenne@sbcglobal.net)
Last updated 5/29/2010

"I Wish I was a headlight on a northbound train,
I'd shine my light in the cool Colorado rain"

-- Lyric from "I Know You Rider," 
traditional folk-blues song

Casey Jones Lives! Southern 
Pacific 7625 at Tracy, CA. 1995. 
(Photo  by Ken Rattenne)
met·a·phor 1. A figure of speech in 
which a word or phrase that ordinarily 
designates one thing is used to designate 
another, thus making an implicit 
comparison, as in “a sea of troubles”
or “All the world's a stage” (Shakespeare).
2. One thing conceived as representing 
another; a symbol.

- American Heritage Dictionary


What's a "railfan."While many of us are captured by the romance and intrigue offered  by trains, "railfans" go the extra mile ( so to speak) by "chasing" trains, sometimes for  hundreds of miles;. they photograph railroad equipment and subjects to the exclusion of all else, and generally are totally engrossed in their hobby of choice. Sound familiar eadheads?

nyone exposed to the Grateful Dead beyond idle curiosity or peer pressure is familiar with the band's rendering of the traditional folk-blues song "I Know You Rider." The quoted lines reference the desire of the singer to leave sadness behind and seek greener pastures elsewhere. In a clever use of metaphor, the song's unknown author wrote this verse using the railroad to enhance the imagary of the lyric and thus communicate his message more clearly.

It's no coincidence that folk, blues and even country music writers have used railroad references in their songs since the advent of the steel wheel on steel rail. Yet it's a use of metaphor that remains today a strong source of emotion in both the fine and performing arts fields.

Musicians have traditionally used the railroad as metaphor to conjure images of everything from heartbreak and sorrow to hope, happiness and even religious deliverance. Which brings us to the Grateful Dead: When reviewing the Dead's repertoire of songs (both recorded and performed) it becomes apparent that the "lads" played more than their fair share of "train songs." Whether coincidentally or by intent, the fact remains that the band employed more metaphorical railroad references than any other type of "recurring-theme" image, including the much loved "Rose." In fact, (and I go out on a limb here) one could make the argument that, as of 1996, the Dead used the railroad metaphor more than any other recording group in the United.States.

The Dead's railroad songs (for lack of a better term) can be divided into two major groups consisting of songs where:

  1. The railroad theme is paramount to the tune.
  2. The railroad is used merely in passing as a metaphorical reference
Now you may ask yourself "Gee, were the band members railfans (see sidebar). Most likely not. In fact, this writer purports the band was mostly, if not completely, unaware that they had built such a large railroad repertoire.

A Look At The Songs

The focus of this monograph is the use of railroads as metaphor by the Grateful Dead. It should be noted that Robert Hunter penned several tunes with a strong railroad theme that were not recorded by the band and thus will not be covered here.

We also won't examine any of the "cover" tunes performed or recorded by the band, you can visit the Roots Of The Grateful Dead web page to do that. The only exceptions are Jesse Fuller's "Beat It On Down The Line", and "The Monkey And The Engineer", and I only present the lyrics with no discussion.

In addition, due to space limitations only a select few of the many songs listed in the below table will be discussed. With this restriction noted, presented below is a table of the better-known tunes containing railroad references.
Grateful Dead Table Of Train Tunes
Song Title Original
or Cover
Category Author
Beat It On Down the Line cover
Jesse Fuller
Big Railroad Blues cover
Noah Lewis
Casey Jones original
Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)  original
Ron McKernan
He's Gone original
I Know You Rider cover
It Takes a Lot To Laugh,
It Takes A Train To Cry 
Bob Dylan
Jack Straw original
Might As Well original 
Mystery Train cover 
New Potato Caboose original 
Robert Peterson
Passenger original
Slow Train Comin' cover 
Bob Dylan
Terrapin Station original
The Monkey and The Engineer cover 
Jesse Fuller
They Love Each Other original
Tons of Steel original 
Brent Mydland

Casey Jones

The best-known Grateful Dead train song is obviously "Casey Jones." Now here is a real rootin' tootin' railroad tune, right down to the driving rhythm the band uses to crescendo the end of the song (my favorite version is the one that appears on the Last Days Of The Fillmore album).

Robert Hunter has crafted a nasty little tune that can only be described as a paradox. Garcia married an upbeat rythym and happy melody to Hunter's disasterous tale of a coke-tootin, whistle-blowin' locomotive engineer that would drive any modern-day (railroad) rules examiner1 to an easy ulcer.

The song is somewhat of parable: Metaphor wrapped in just enough authenticity to connect us to the traditional folk song of the same name. Of course, the chances that Casey actually used cocaine is rather slim, as alcohol tended to be the drug of choice to railroad men in those days. Of course, today the railroad companies have very aggressive drug detection and prevention programs in place to prevent just the sort of thing that happened to poor old Casey (in the Dead's song, that is). But even today the tragedy that belongs to Casey Jones, mainly plowing into another train on the same track, still occurs today.

1The universal railroad rule covering drinking on the job and the use of controlled substances while on duty is called Rule G. In our subject song Casey has very definetely violated Rule G!


Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks) and New Potato Caboose 

These two tunes, recorded long ago on Anthem Of The Sun use railroad references in their titles only! The first, penned by Ron McKernan, is "Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks)". This song has been around so long its beginnings have become obscured. Nonetheless, the title refers to signs commonly seen at railroad grade crossings across America.

It's interesting but not surprising to note that Ron Pigpen McKernan, "Mr. Pen" as Janis Joplin called him, should use a railroad reference in an original work as early as 1965. I say not surprising because Pigpen's background and main musical influences were heavily steaped in the Blues. And guess which musical genre borrowed heavily from the railroad idiom? You got it...the Blues.

Unprotected grade crossings are grade crossings with no automated crossing gate or arm to lower and block the roadway upon the approach of a train*. Unprotected crossings also displayed the once common "Stop-Look-Listen" slogan which is now a part of American folk history.  Even today Do Not Stop On The Tracks signs can occasionally still be found at some of the more rural grade crossings..

As for New Potato Caboose (by the late Robert Peterson), suffice it to say that this song came out of the "Owsley" period! Although, the Mr. Potatohead people could have a new marketing opportunity. "Mr. Potato Caboose." (For a more serious discussion of this song see the annotated lyrics by clicking on the song title above)


*Before the advent of automatic crossing gates, busy grade crossings (usually in lthe larger metropolitan areas) had crossing shantys with a railroad employee who would go out and stop traffic upon the approach of a train. These employees were often close to reitrement age, or in fact had "retired" and simply worked for the extra money.

Jack Straw

In Jack Straw Hunter's reference to railroads is made in the third verse: Both metaphor and artist's license are used heavily in this piece of verse.

As pointed out elsewhere in these pages, Daniel Dawdy wrote to David Dodd "The Great Northern was not a train, but a large railroad which ran from St. Paul to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. There was no train called the Great Northern that I know of."

Correct. But let's keep in mind that blues, country and rock song writers are generally not railfans and thus tend to write from what they have seen and experienced. They also tend to write whatever will sound good to get the lyric to fit the music.

Thus in the case of Jack Straw, Robert Hunter, who probably never picked up a Trains or Railfan magazine in his life (correct me if I'm wrong Robert), may have remembered seeing a locomotive, or more probably, a freight car with the Great Northern name or herald on its' side; maybe he was in Cheyenne at the time...

One can see the possibilities.

And even though the Great Northern railroad was merged into the Burlington Northern railroad in 1970 (and more recently the Burlington Northern Santa Fe --or BNSF), the colorful and distinctive GN herald and name can still be seen on an occasional boxcar even today.

To this writer, Jack Straw represents one of the best examples of railroad symbology found in the Dead repetoire.


"He's Gone" and "They Love Each Other"

These two songs use references to locomotives in a purely metaphorical sense.

"He's Gone"

In "He's Gone" Hunter wrote... ...referencing (according to David Dodd in his annotated lyric page for this song) the disappearance of steam as a means of locomotion for trains. Steam engines were gone from mainline railroads by 1960 when the Norfolk & Western (now part of the Norfolk Southern) retired their last steam power from freight service.

However, this writer's interpretation of the line is different. If anyone has seen one of these big, mainline steam locomotives in excursion service (such as former Southern Pacific 4449 or one of Union Pacific's two big steam engines, Nos. 844 and 3985), then the impression of immense power as one of these behemoths blasts by at 60 mph is obvious. And when it's gone -- it's gone!

Case in point: In 1984 reporter Marie Watkins of the New Haven (Missouri) Leader wrote a column for her newspaper after experiencing Union Pacific 8444 (now UP 844) passing through her small town on a winter's day:
"It snowed on Monday, March 12, the wind was biting and the day was dull, dull and gray. We remembered about old No. 8444 and shuffled up to the crossing to wait for the old steam engine...just out of respect for the past. 

"The cold quickly stung our toes with pain, and the people who strung along the track wandered here and there and stomped their feet. A train or two passed, but there was no sign of the old steam engine with the cow catcher. 

"We milled about, that half-hearted gathering of the cold and the curious. Over there was Mr. Williams...wait...

"A hoarse whistle moaned...Lord! MERCY! It was unbelievable! ""Old" 8444 exploded across the Front Street track like a page from Armageddon. 

It would be inappropriate to say the old geezer was smoking - she was breathing fury like a black demon. You'd a thought she was mad at somebody. And m-o-v-i-n-g? That iron monster never heard of chug-a-chug. She hit with such blithering force that it caused terror to rise up and go forth. Black thunder swept all breath away and the air roared with mocking anger. 

"A hunnert miles and hour! A hunnert miles an hour!" the people would say later with disbelief, for the wind from 8444 blew one onlooker right off the railroad crossing.

"Before she even got here, No. 8444 was gone!

It was awesome, just awesome."

- Marie Watkins, 1984 

Reprinted from a Union Pacific promotional piece.

 Union Pacific 8444 (now UP 844) Ken Rattenne Photo
I rest my case! 

So which interpretation of this single line in this one song is really correct? 

Both. Neither. I suspect that Hunter is the only one who really knows why he penned any line in any song. However, a well written song is like a well written story, allowing the listener to become personally involved with the the music and lyrics. Dead tunesmiths were masters at this. 


"They Love Each Other"

In a completely different vein, when Garcia sings...
"You better not be there when it rolls over..." Altercation between a schoolbus and a Southern Pacific diesel in Arkansas did not fare well for the occupants.. (Courtesy Arkansas Operation Lifesaver)

"It's nothing they explain,
it's like a diesel train --
You better not be there
when it rolls over..."

There's that "coming and going" metaphor again. Just like the lyric in "He's Gone" Hunter uses the image of a locomotive to communicate strength and power in order to get his point across. This time it's a diesel.

This lyric is not only illustrative but subtly instructive too. We all know (or should know) not to get in the way of a train (remember Caution Do Not Stop On The Tracks?) ; they're big, heavy and they don't stop very well

According to Operation Lifesaver, Inc a car traveling 55 mph needs approximately 200 feet to stop; a train traveling at 55 mph needs over a mile to stop! No doubt this line from "They Love Each Other" could easily be adopted by the Operation Lifesaver folks as part of their grade crossing safety message.

With that established, the railroad metaphor in this song simply communicates the unstoppable love that exists between this couple (sigh sigh).


Might As Well

A reader of this essay forwarded to me this scan of a sticker issued to advertise the the Canadian Festival Express. See the official web site.

Just about everyone knows this tune is about the Dead's 1970 Canadian Festival Express tour with Janis Joplin, The Band and several others. The tour's entourage rode a chartered passenger train across Canada, shunning the usual travel arrangements by bus or plane.

The lyrics describe to a tee the party-like, anything-goes atmosphere of riding a chartered train or private railroad car (PV), which is to say, fun, fun, fun! This author has traveled thousands of miles on PVs over the years and there is nothing like it in the travel industry. In the Dead's case of though, they had an entire train chartered for this tour.

The Film Janis is reported to include footage from this storied tour but mostly the details of the train trip were word-of-mouth. Finally, in 2003, the original producers of the Festival Express tour released a 2-disc DVD chronicling this important event.  The Festival Express was a chartered train that traveled over Canadian National rails to deliver the tour's acts to their various venue locations. Today, chartering a train in Canada would be impossible. Canadian passenger operations are now under an Amtrak-like company called Via Rail Canada, which reportedly will not allow private cars on their trains let alone rent an entire passenger consist to a bunch of rowdy rock bands! In the U.S., however, there are many private car  operators who would be more than willing to take a band's money for a grand cross-country trip.


Terrapin Station

One of the most haunting and mysterious songs performed by the Dead, Terrapin Station evokes incredible imagery, little of it referencing trains. Interesting, since the title of the song suggests a heavy railroad influence. But then, that's part of the wonder of this song. The song title itself is curious: Terrapin Station The American Heritage dictionary defines the word "terrapin" as "Any of various North American aquatic turtles of the family Emydiolae, especially the genus Malaclemys, which includes the diamondback terrapin."

Hmmmm. And they have their own station?

Aside from the name Terrapin Station, there is but a single lyrical railroad reference in the entire song, and this nearly three quarters of the way through the song's lyrics.

While the last two lines are the only hard reference to trains in this entire e entire song, the words chosen, and they way they are phrased are a compelling message to the listener; a frantic sense that something's about to happen...and the Dead's instrumental might becomes dynamic and driven. Though not as rythmically dynamic as the final bars to Casey Jones, the instrumental performance does give one the sense of riding a speeding train.

Only at the last lyrical refrain at the songs conclusion we are allowed to drift down onto a melodic plateau at the part of the song Hunter dubs AT A SIDING.

Terrapin Station almost didn't make it on my list, but that would shortchange a truly great song, and the most extraordinary of all train songs included the Dead's repertoire.


Tons Of Steel

This is Brent Mydland's contribution to the pool of "Ded Train Songs." There's little doubt as to Brent's intent with this song.  He even begins the studio version of this tune with the sound of an approaching train. In the tradition of Blues writers everywhere, Brent uses the metaphor of a train (specifically a diesel locomotive) to describe romantic woes.

The title (obviously) refers to the weight of a diesel locomotive and it's train. In fact, the modern diesel found on today's freight railroads generates between 3800-4400 hp, holds around 5,000 gallons of fuel, measures 70-plus feet in length, and weighs -- a lot!

As a point of trivia, the sound effect heard in the opening of the studio track on In The Dark is one of the CalTrain diesels used in commuter service between San Francisco and San Jose, California. Stands to reason: If you needed a recording of a diesel, what better place to obtain one than a short drive across the Bay to San Francisco and the CalTrain station at 4th and Townsend? Especially when you realize 60 trains a day arrive and depart in a 24-hour period.



More could certainly be written on the subject of the Grateful Dead and railroads. Though there are additional songs that would be interesting to cover (Passenger, The Monkey and the Engineer etc), I believe I've illustrated the point enough to invite you to compile your own list of Dead railroad songs. In fact, if you do, please send me a copy so I can compile a master list.

Looking beyond the Dead experience one can discover literally hundreds of songs by folk, blues, rock and country artists employing the railroad as a primary metaphoric theme in their music. Even John Denver released an all-railroad themed album in 1997 not long before his death (I know this because a well-intentioned cousin sent me a copy). And you can bet that should the steel wheel ever disappear as a viable mode of transportation (not a probability!) the train, with its moaning whistle, thunder and power, will continue to live in song and folklore!

And please remember, Do Not Stop On The Tracks!

Ken Rattenne
Modesto, Calif.
Reach Ken at krattenne@sbcglobal.net
Last updated Sept 2010