This post is part of a countdown series on songs that have stuck in my head and are part of my iTunes "hit parade" of most-played tracks. See all the posts here.
"Freight Train," by folk singer Elizabeth Cotten is short and sweet, as opposed to the many epic songs about railroads, but it hits on several recurring themes in train tunes. There's the idea of an escape from an oppressive or boring life ("Please don't tell what train I'm on/They won't know what route I've gone"). One could escape from one's hometown in a car or on a plane, but those modes of transport imply too much deliberation and control over one's fate. Jumping on a train has an air of impulsiveness and a sense of leaving one's fate to a higher power. Often in these songs, the protagonist isn't sure where he or she will end up, or even where the train is headed. ("Midnight Train to Georgia" is kind of an exception, but the singer isn't the one taking off.)
Trains are often a metaphor for death, thanks to their linear nature. They move in one direction, always toward the end of the line. Cotten mentions her own mortality, echoing the "don't tell" line from the beginning of the song: "When I am dead and in my grave/No more good times here I crave/Place the stones at my head and feet/Tell them all that I've gone to sleep."
Finally there's the sound of a train as a symbol of life, a reassurance that the world is continuing to turn (on schedule) no matter what happens to one's own existence, and that how "Freight Train" ends: "When I die, Lord, bury me deep/Way down on Old Chestnut Street/Then I can hear old Number 9/As she comes rollling by."
Here is a video of Cotten playing the song (with a little help from Pete Seeger) that's very close to the recording I listen to.