No anecdotal attachment here, as such. It feels like this great modern gospel song has always been around. In fact when I was younger, I might have thought of it as a version of some other train/salvation metaphor songs – didn’t the Seekers or the Settlers or the Rennies sing one about ‘the Gospel train’? (Wasn’t that also in ‘Youth Praise’, the British 60s hymnal for church youth groups?) I note that the original ‘Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ single/album of this title was actually released in 1965! But it’s been dormant for me, this song, only gaining a kind of prominence as, over the last 15 years, I’ve heard a succession of cover versions underlining what a classic of a song it is – James Taylor, Eva Cassidy, Patty Griffin – but what, particularly, has occasioned this essay is hearing the mighty Seal singing it on his album of classic soul songs, which I picked up in a charity shop last week. Wow.
Going back to the original, it’s sweet, but surprisingly tight and low-key, with some neat choreography in the structured performance – the first halves of lines sung by a solo voice and then completed in the second half either by a different voice or by the whole group. Then there’s a key change before verse 3 – ah that tricky verse three (more in a moment) – and the first verse is repeated at the end. It’s a piece of smooth, controlled soul. If that’s not an oxymoron.
Hearing it being played in the car again last week, and having heard me warbling it round the house made my youngest daughter ask ‘Is this your favourite song at the moment, Dad?’ ‘I suppose it is,’ I said. These great cover versions over the last few years have made me want to add it to my repertoire, but I think I lack the necessaries to bring it to life – a good voice, maybe. My gifts such as they are – quirky song-composition-twiddling or whatever – are not enough to do this justice. You need a Voice, I think. On the only occasion I had a go at this in Folk Club, it all felt a bit flat. And then there’s the question of that trickiness in verse 3.
Before singing it publicly, I realized I had some theological problems with verse 3: ‘There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own..’ Hmmm, I thought: aren’t sinners precisely for whom there IS some carriage room? Or am I watering down Mr Mayfield’s justifiably urgent warning, because of a kind of liberal universalism? And maybe there’s the implicit understanding that said sinner is ‘hopeless’ because in his unrepentant malice willfully misses the train? Either way, I ended up singing ‘There’s STILL some room for the hopeless sinner..’ And the final two lines of the verse – ‘Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/Cos there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne’… Well, that was just about OK, I suppose. But what too about the end of verse 2 which seems to differ in different versions – ‘There’s hope for all among those loved the most.’ Uncomfortable (Calvinistic?) ideas of God’s favouritism, as the lucky Elect chug on in their luxury choo-choo? However, Eva Cassidy sings ‘There’s hope for all among the loved and lost’ which I think is what I plumped for in my solo performance.
Why such scruples, you might be asking? I suppose it seems such a neat bit of gospel, I want the metaphor to hold together in a way that has some integrity by my funny standards. Is a train journey a good image for salvation? It has some validity I think, especially the idea of the ‘free ride’ (‘you don’t need a ticket’), the sense of sheer grace that enables the ride (‘no baggage..’) , the sense of train rides as having destination etc. Alright -easy to stretch what is essentially a fun piece of imagery if we over-analyse, I know!
I don’t think I’ve heard a bad rendition of this song (except mine at folk club), and the opening exhortation generally makes something skip within me as a kind of response. I heartily commend – especially – the Seal recording. Could you get more soulful soul? And so, get on board, little children, get on board.