Music Mentor Books






Max Haymes


ISBN-13: 978-0-9547068-3-8 (ISBN: 0-9547068-3-8)

Paperback, 390 pages, 118 illustrations, 2006

Availability:  In print / In stock



This groundbreaking book, written by one of the foremost blues historians in the UK, is based on over 30 years' research, exploration and absolute passion for early blues music.  It is the first ever comprehensive study of the enormous impact of the railroads on 19th and early 20th Century African American society and the many and varied references to this new phenomenon in early blues lyrics.

Chapter 1 - Smokestack is black, an' the bell it shine like gold
Brief background of railroads in the antebellum era and slaves’ involvement —  role of Pullman and Red Cap porters — the Panama Limited — origins of ‘smokestack lightning’ and Charley Patton — ticket as long as my right arm’, ‘ballin’ the jack’ — the ‘other’ Midnight Special — Texas & New Orleans RR and Lucille Bogan.

Chapter 2 - Skippin' 'round from log to log
Evolution of logging camps in the South — origins of piano blues, boogie woogie and the barrelhouse — oral transmission of early blues via logging roads — more on the T&NO.

Chapter 3 - Ah! When I leave here, gonna catch that M&O
The story of the Mobile & Ohio and the blues from 1852 to 1940; a ’journey’ from Mobile to St. Louis — background of the floating bridge of Sleepy John Estes fame — Cairo, Ill. — the real facts of Casey Jones’ train wreck in 1900 — river bottoms — the Union Stockyard in Meridian, Miss. — oral transmission and (a) way freight trains on the M&O, (b) stevedores at Mobile Bay.

Chapter 4 - She's givin' it away
Short history of the refrigerator car or ‘reefer’ from 1858 to 1910 — introduction of the banana to the ‘masses’ in the black community — fast freights: the ‘redball’ and the ‘hotshot’ — hoboing on a reefer with T-Bone Walker and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards — sexual symbolism and street market blues — English music hall link with some early vaudeville-blues singers.

Chapter 5 - Goin' where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog
Origins of the ‘Yellow Dog’ — short history of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley RR — pea vine railroads — brief survey of labour history and anti-union railroad companies — yellow dog contracts —recordings of the Yellow Dog from 1923 to 1961, by Sam Collins, Bessie Smith et al.

Chapter 6 - An' that thing don't keep a-ringin' so soon
Brief study of early Southern prison/correction systems — convict lease and railroads’ involvement — source of the ‘longest train’ motif in the blues — origin of ‘In The Pines’ — Joseph E. Brown and Peg Leg Howell — brief survey of the  Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. or ‘TCI’, and singers — Railroad Bill and the L&N — short history of Gulfport & Ship Island RR and Robert Johnson link — the ‘ding dong’ and Frank Stokes.

Chapter 7 - Runnin' down to the station
Resumé of beginnings of the Fast Mail in 1875 — importance to rural South — source of John Byrd’s ‘Billy Goat Blues’ in the 1850s — fast mail trains such as the Big 80 and the Sunnyland — lineage of Robert Johnson’s ‘fastest train I see’ verse — streamline trains — blues singers’ knowledge of railroad operations — the railroad depot: the seamier side and the ‘leaving scene’ in the blues, as related by Robert Wilkins, Roosevelt Sykes, Ma Rainey and Robert Johnson.

Chapter 8 - I carried water for the elephant
Short history of development of circus and carnival in the South — beginnings of medicine shows — circuses in Natchez, Miss. during antebellum era and the early minstrel song, ‘Billy Barlow’ — excursion trains — blues singers’ role in circus and origin of ‘ballyhoo’ — circus and carnival slang used in the blues — role of steam calliope — short survey of origin of ‘hokum’ and hokum blues — the railroad crossing — vaudeville-blues singers and travelling shows including Clara Smith — oral transmission process.

Chapter 9 - Gonna leave a Pullman, an' ride the L&N
Vaudeville blues lyrics and influence on rural singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson by Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox and others — oral transmission and the blues record — passenger train women, platform vendors and Blind Boy Fuller — survey and ancestry of ‘Careless Love’ — Mae Glover, John Byrd, Bobby Grant and Buddy Boy Hawkins — roots of ‘Statesboro Blues’ by Blind Willie McTell.

Chapter 10 - Lined out smokin’, look like it takin’ to scat
Short survey of early tramps and hobos on the rails — women hobos and Memphis Minnie — Chicago, the railroad hobo’s Mecca — hobo jungles and ‘Hoovervilles’ — symbolism of the railroad and ultimate freedom for the hobo — The Atlanta Special, Bukka White and Blind Willie McTell — riding the blinds and riding the rods — railroad police and Sleepy John Estes — origins of ‘hobo’.


Appendix I - Origins of 'red light district'.

Appendix II - 'In The Pines' / 'The Longest Train' and the "accident stanzas".

Appendix III - Big Boy.

Glossary of Railroad Abbreviations and Nicknames

Index of Artists' Names

Index of Song Titles

General Index

The book is comprehensively annotated, and also includes a discography at the end of each chapter.


"This fairly dense and scholarly book is on a fascinating topic...and , as with many books like this, you'd probably want to pull out the tracks mentioned and hear them while reading about the artists and their times...  An especially fascinating chapter for me was the one on blues musicians' relationships to circuses which traveled on the railroads.  My great grandpa (died 1937, I never knew him) owned a traveling circus, and my grandma told stories about performing with the black singers when she was like 3-5 years old.  That circus was too small to make mention in the book, but it was fun looking for it!"  Blue Suede News (Winter 2006-07)


"I promise to make no jokes about blues collectors and train spotters. I really do, because here is a new book that skillfully combines those two obsessions and, in doing so, weaves a fresh and insightful view of their oft-entwined histories... What Max Haymes has attempted to do here – successfully in my view – is explore the relationship between an emerging technology and an emerging music; how the blues was affected by railroad work and travel, how African American lives benefited and sometimes suffered as a result of both; how the blues was, in part, shaped by the opportunities that rail travel -paid or not- offered and how that experience shaped their reflections, caught in the lyrical images preserved on early blues recordings.

        I should perhaps point out that the subtitle, “Railroads In Early Blues” is pretty strict; there is little discussion here of post 1950 experience, but much of developments in both fields during the 18th and 19th centuries. For railroads, available early history is quite detailed, but the mists of time have always shrouded the origins of the blues; we still don’t know for certain where the first blues were sung, by whom, accompanied by what or how they sounded.  With railroads, we can discover the dimensions of the last fly-wheel or the first two tone whistle, so there is some disproportion in the available research, and Haymes has done well in striking a balance. Of necessity, the great bulk of the blues research here is drawn from recordings, mostly from the 1920’s and 1930’s, accompanied by full blooded discographical detail and – in my view – extremely accurate lyric transcripts.  This allows the author’s conclusions to be offered in some depth – for there are over 300 pages of text sewn together here – and while I might want to take issue with one or two stretched points, the theories expounded are well thought out and backed by the best of circumstantial evidence and insightful readings of the research.

        All that said, this is neither a volume for the novice or casual reader, and even committed fans are faced with a serious, in-depth narrative. I have no problem with this, for many books about the blues published this last decade or so have been pretty facile and in some cases should have been strangled at birth.  This is not one of them.  With a good selection of relevant illustrations, very accurate indexing, an accessible and relevant discography, I would recommend this to anyone serious about the subject.  Perhaps the best praise I can offer is that it often felt like I was reading a Paul Oliver text."  Folk Roots (March 2007)

"The high standard of writing and research is maintained in every chapter of this riveting blues railroad journey... All chapters are absolutely enthralling, and reminded me of when I first read the ground-breaking classic by Arnold Shaw, Honkers And Shouters.  There is so much information in these pages it is mind bending, but in a good way!.... I recommend you get a ticket "long as your right arm" and go out and get this book: it is a MUST for all blues fans, and a most unique and refreshing way of presenting a book on our favorite subject, "The Blues".  Hats off to Music Mentor for this one!  A+A+Plus. ESSENTIAL reading."  Holler (April-May 2007)


"Not only is Haymes’ book as valuable a document as Paul Oliver’s classic The Story of the Blues (1969) - Railroadin’ Some also raises the stakes by explaining the freight trains’ symbolic importance to such familiar but hardly self-explanatory blues-song phrases as “smokestack lightnin’,” “where the Southern cross’ the Yellow Dog” and “ridin’ the blind”.  The book is nothing less than the definitive survey of the railroads’ long-term impact upon American life and musical expression."  Business Press / Homestyle (June 2007)


"This is a marvellous piece of work, because it not only documents hundreds of railroad-influenced Blues recordings, complete with fascinating, illustrative snatches of lyrics; it is also a thorough exploration of the enormous impact the railroads of the 19th and 20th century had on African American society...  If you love Americana, have a passion for detailed history, and above all, relish the early Blues, then this book should have pride of place on your shelves."  Blues Matters! (January 2008)


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