Jazz and Trains: A Connected History

It is no secret that Jazz musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, had a fascination with trains. Piece after piece has train whistle imitations and train references in its title. Where did this interconnectedness between Jazz and trains come from?

Constructing Railroads in the United States

American music has a long-standing connection to trains that reaches back before the advent of Jazz in the late 1910s.

Railroad construction in the United States began in the late 1820s, the first railway to charter freight and passengers being the Baltimore and Ohio constructed in 1827. By the 1870s, there was already a vast network of railroads spanning the country, allowing for unprecedented travel of goods and people.

One of the reasons that railroads were able to be constructed so rapidly was the use of slave labor. Southern railroad companies began buying slaves in the early 1840s and used enslaved labor almost exclusively to construction their lines. Thousands of enslaved African Americans were working on Southern railroads by 1850. In spite of the immense hardship of this labor, trains became a “symbol of hope and transformation” for enslaved people and their descendants (Davis, p. 82).

Pullman Porters and the Great Migration

Shortly after the Civil War, businessman George M. Pullman hired thousands of African American men to work on his luxury railroad sleeping cars. While these men were often severely overworked and underpaid, porters were paid more than many other Black workers at the time.

In 1925, Pullman porters established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union to represent Black workers because the American Railway Union refused to include them. They were trailblazers, securing the first-ever agreement between a union of Black workers and a major U.S. company, successfully bargaining for a more reasonable work schedule and better wages. This accomplishment was monumental and lead to further economic mobility for Pullman porters and their families.

The Great Migration was crucial to the development of American music and every facet of society. From 1916 to 1970, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. They sought better economic opportunities and an escape from the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In moving, they brought their music, cuisine, and customs with them. This newfound means of travel allowed for a broader and more rapid exchange of ideas.

Trains in Early Black American Music

The Crush Collision March, Scott Joplin

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named it Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Two soon-to-be retired trains were commissioned to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

Linin’ Track, Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter (c. 1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, performs Linin’ Track. He was legendary for picking a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad tracks.

Famous Jazz Pieces Incorporating Trains

Daybreak Express, Duke Ellington

Ellington uses his orchestra to emulate the sounds of a speeding train.

Chattanooga Choo Choo, Glenn Miller

In his WBUR interview, Rob Kapilow breaks down the music and lyrics behind Chattanooga Choo Choo. Regarding the lyrics:

“The lyrics immediately give you a feeling of what the Civil Rights situation was at the time. I mean, it’s amazing how lyrics embed American history within them. You know, ‘pardon me, boy, is that the chattanooga choo choo?’ Then they go, ‘yes, yes, track 29.’ ‘Boy, you can give me a shine.’ I mean, in just those few lines yo get the whole situation of the south in the 1940s with luxury train travel in which white passengers are served by Black pullman porters and Black shoeshine boys, which was almost the only regular employment that you could get at the time. And in just those few lines, you get the world of Plessy versus Ferguson, of separate but equal, of segregated luxury train travel.”

– Rob Kapilow

Further Learning

This is an area of American history that I am just beginning to explore. I was inspired to learn more after reading Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, in which a passing reference to train whistle imitation sparked my curiosity dig deeper.

Here are a few more resources to explore:

Choo Choo Boogaloo: 5 Jazz for Trains, A Blog Supreme

Railroads in the African American Experience, book

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, The Syncopated Times

The Train in Jazz & Blues podcast, from the The Joys of Jazz

Summer Reading List 2020

Music is My Mistress,
Duke Ellington

The celebrated memoir in the words of Duke himself. Ellington’s flowery and sophisticated use of language draws a direct parallel to his music. This is a delightful read containing stories of travels around the world and colorful depictions of the many characters in Duke’s band over the years.

The Everyday Language of White Racism,
Jane H. Hill

This book explores racist language from the perspective of a linguist. Dr. Hill illustrates some of the ways our language can uphold racist beliefs. I found this to be a very insightful read from a point of view I have not encountered before.

Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development,
Gunther Schuller

Early Jazz was among the first books of its kind, delving into the complicated origins of Jazz. While some of the language and evaluations in the book are dated, the book is well-researched and contains numerous transcriptions of historic solos and arrangements.

All About Love,
bell hooks

bell hooks shares powerful explorations on the topic of love, its power and why we may lack it in many aspects of our lives. These essays are moving and are a catalyst for self-reflection. In reading the book, I came across several moments that were profound to me. I shared one of these during #wisdomwednesday a few weeks ago:

Louis Armstrong & Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz,
Joshua Berrett (in progress)

Louis Armstrong – as a musician and person – has served as a vital source of inspiration in my life. While Paul Whiteman’s music is not as familiar to me, I have begun exploring it because of Gunther Schuller’s deep interest in Whiteman’s music and contributions to Jazz. Back when libraries were still open, I was perplexed when I came across a book juxtaposing Armstrong and Whiteman’s careers. The book is an informative and page-turning read.

The Ragtime Revival of the 1970s

This blog post is part of my Ragtime Project, which encompasses an upcoming EP of Ragtime-inspired music, blog posts about the history of the music, and a forthcoming self-published collection of essay about what in this music and its history resonates with me as a performer and composer.


Ragtime is often considered the first popular music originating from the United States, reigning prominent from the 1890s until the mid-1910s. [1] Its popularity was displaced by Jazz, though the nature of this transition is disputed (Schuller, Early Jazz, p. 63). (I intend for this to be the topic of a future blog post.) There was a brief revival of Ragtime in the 1950s, but much of the music was highly commercialized and played on out-of-tune pianos to mimic old-time saloons. [2] 1950 was also the year in which scholars Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis published their seminal history book entitled They All Played Ragtime. However, the most impactful Ragtime revival occurred in the 1970s, the events of this time truly securing the art form’s place in the United States culture.

There are several important projects that contributed to the Ragtime revival of the 1970s, several of which will be outlined here.

1. The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake

In 1969, Columbia Records released The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. Prior to this double-LP, Blake had a successful career as a songwriter with hits such as Charleston Rag (1899), I’m Just Wild About Harry (1921), and Memories of You (1930). [3] He collaborated with Noble Sissle on the Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921), which renewed the popularity of Black musical comedies and launched the careers of many Black actors including Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson. [4] The release of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake gave Blake’s career a second wind. [5] As one of the few surviving musicians from the Ragtime era, Blake became a beloved celebrity and torchbearer for the music. [6]

A playlist of The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake

2. Piano Rags by Scott Joplin

In 1970, pianist/conductor Joshua Rifkin released Piano Rags by Scott Joplin on the Nonesuch label. In contrast to the Ragtime recordings of the 1950s which featured out-of-tune pianos to caricaturize a by-gone era [6], Rifkin treated Joplin’s music with the utmost respect and taking into account all of Joplin’s directions. [7] In 1971, the album was nominated for two Grammy awards for Best Album Notes and Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (Without Orchestra). [8] It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame this year. [9]

A playlist of Scott Joplin Piano Rags

3. The Red Back Book

In 1973, the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, under the direction of Gunther Schuller, released The Red Back Book. The album won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance that year. [10] The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble became in-demand for performances and events across the country. [11] The collection of Joplin pieces featured on the album was thought to be lost, but Schuller came into contact with someone who had possibly the last surviving copy of the Red Back Book. [12]

A playlist of The Red Back Book

4. The Sting

The contribution that had perhaps the most broad impact on the Ragtime revival was the film The String (1974). The soundtrack featured an abridged version of Joplin’s The Entertainer (1902), which rose to the top of the pop record charts. [13]  

The Sting soundtrack

5. Producing Treemonisha

The 1970s also saw the first performances of Joplin’s second, though only surviving, opera entitled Treemonisha (c. 1911). [14] In 1972, the Atlanta Symphony and the Morehouse College Music Department gave the first full performance of the opera. [15] In 1975, the Houston Opera gave the first fully produced performance of Treemonisha. Gunther Schuller was responsible for the orchestration for the performance and the subsequently released recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label. In his lifetime, Joplin did not orchestrate the opera. He self-published the piano score, which he played in a reading of the opera for potential financial supporters in 1915. [16] Joplin tragically passed away at the age of 49 without living to see his opera produced.

A playlist of Treemonisha, as recorded by the Houston Grand Opera and orchestrated by Gunther Schuller

Because of these key events and the public’s overall positive reception to them, Ragtime music will continue to be a remembered and cherished part of the unique musical heritage of the United States.


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

Announcing My Next Project

I am excited to share plans for my next project! Inspired by the amazing creative work my friends have done in spite of COVID and motivated by Bandcamp’s first Friday initiative to help artists, I decided that I would release new, original music every month.

Last month, it was The New Groove. I was experimenting with new technology, trying to find meaning and humor in a confusing time. I am so grateful for all the support around this project. Thank you to everyone who has purchased, listened, dropped me a note, shared on social – you all are amazing!

My next project, which I intend to release on July 3rd, has been incredibly special. Inspired by Gunther Schuller’s book Early Jazz and by his Grammy-winning recording The Red Back Book, I decided to take a close look at Ragtime music. My initial plan was to just release an EP of my original rags. I knew I would need to do extensive research for this project and realized that I could – and should – find ways to share the story of this music with the people who know me and my music. The project has evolved to encompass an EP and a self-published collection of essays about Ragtime music. Many of the essays will also be available on my blog, some of which will inevitably overlap with my Encountering Gunther blog series.

I look forward to sharing this project with you and shining a light on this often overlooked art form that was so critical in the development of music in the United States.


Read the Latest Posts from my Ragtime Project