- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Worked on the railroad lately? Hoping to hear that lonesome whistle blow anytime soon? Watched your baby leave you on that southbound morning train?

If you are like most people, the answers are probably a resounding no. Today the only place where trains are everywhere is in the blues, ballads, bluegrass and work songs that make up what is called “roots music.”

“You know, Jimmie Rodgers was a brakeman,” says Doc Watson, referring to the songwriter and guitar player who is considered the father of country music.

Mr. Watson, a winner of six Grammys and a lifetime achievement award from the recording industry, may very well play a bit of Jimmie Rodgers when he plays the Birchmere tomorrow. But he’s also likely to play something from any number of genres, including rockabilly, gospel and the blues.

Mr. Watson is also known for playing fiddle tunes on flat-top guitar with a finger-numbing style of playing that has vexed any number of fledgling guitarists. What is less known about him, though, is how much he loves trains.

“I was a dear lover of trains when I was a child,” says Mr. Watson, 81. “My uncle did hobo runs. I used to run out to hear the Atlantic Seabird or Norfolk Southern go through.”

Historians will tell you that railroad porters brought new songs to whistle-stops all across the country, and sociologists will point to the migration patterns of folk along the railroad lines to explain the preponderance of railroad imagery in their songs. But the biggest reason there are so many songs about trains may have more to do with their sound.

“High lonesome,” is how some describe it. If you’ve ever been up late at night alone and heard the sound of a train whistle, you’ll know what they mean.

Something of that quality has traveled to Mr. Watson’s guitar, where it issues forth in songs such as “Wabash Cannonball,” “Freight Train Blues” and “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.”

“I love music that has something to say,” says Mr. Watson, who has been blind since he was 1. He picked up his nickname at 19 when a radio announcer had trouble with his first name, Arthel. Someone in the audience shouted, “Call him Doc,” and the name stuck.

His first instrument was a banjo, made by his father in 1934. When he was 13, his father promised to buy him a guitar if the youngster could learn to play the one he had borrowed by the time his father got home from work.

“You can do more with a guitar,” Mr. Watson says. “To me, a banjo is more limited.”

In the 1950s, he was playing rockabilly and swing. In the ‘60s, musicologist Ralph Rinzler heard him play and brought him north. Since then, he’s played on more than 50 albums and collaborated with Chet Atkins, Jean Ritchie, and Ricky Skaggs, among others.

His greatest collaboration, though, was with his son, Merle — who died in a tractor accident in 1985. Mr. Watson says his own playing couldn’t hold a candle to Merle’s.

“You couldn’t believe how much better he played,” says Mr. Watson, who will be performing at the Birchmere with Merle’s son, Richard. “If I had that much talent, there’s no telling what I could do.”

Something of that power of two will also be in evidence at the Bluebird Blues Festival in Largo, where hometown favorites Cephas & Wiggins perform on Sunday.

Both are Washington natives. Phil Wiggins was born here in 1954 of a family from Alabama. Early on, he became interested in the blues, jamming with the likes of Archie Edwards and Flora Molton. (Washingtonians of a certain age may remember Miss Molton, a slide guitarist and gospel singer who used to play downtown on the corner of 11th and F streets Northwest.)

Mr. Wiggins, in addition to playing the harmonica, is also a songwriter whose songs about urban life frequently appear in the duo’s repertoire. He even appeared (as a harmonica player) in the John Sayles film “Matewan.”

Born in 1930, John Cephas grew up in Foggy Bottom. His mother’s people came from Caroline County, Virginia, and he spent his summers there. Even in Foggy Bottom, many folk had family back in the Piedmont region, that area from the mountains to the ocean.

People from the Piedmont followed the rail lines up to Washington and Baltimore. Take a train from the Mississippi Delta, and you’ll probably end up in Chicago.

But if you’re looking for the roots of the blues, you’ll have to go farther than the Piedmont or the Delta, Mr. Cephas says.

“The Piedmont style is very similar to the kind of fingerpicking they do in West Africa, in Senegal and Mali,” Mr. Cephas says. “In Mississippi, where they use a slide, it’s more like what it is in other parts of Africa.”

But whether you’re playing with your thumb or a Mississippi slide, sooner or later, you’re likely to come across a song that conjures a train.

“A lot of the blues are stories of life,” Mr. Cephas says. “Trains can represent a whole lot of things, like the aspirations that people had at the time. The blues are life experience in a musical presentation.”

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