At around 12:45 p.m. on May 10, 1869, the United States’ first Transcontinental Railroad was completed as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines were ceremoniously joined on Promontory Summit, Utah. This 1,700-mile stretch of continuous track from the Central Pacific terminus in Sacramento, California, to the Union Pacific terminus in Omaha, Nebraska, connected the West Coast to the existing network of eastern railways.
There are many experiences—achievements and consequences—that hinge off this giant physical undertaking to “unite” the country and continent. The building of the railroad is an iconic American tale about physical mobility and technical prowess, but it’s also a story about labor, migration, American conquest, and empire.
The extension of rail service across the continent enabled growth of the United States as a nation through the transport of goods, materials, and people. Constructed between 1863 and 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was at the time the largest and most expensive infrastructure project undertaken by the country—and its impact was enormous. Barely twenty years later, with Native communities dispossessed of much of their ancestral lands, about 100,000 more miles of track marbled the nation. By the 1920s, around two million people worked in some fashion for the railroads, making it one of the country’s largest employers. In just a few decades, trains had become enshrined in American culture as symbols of both progress and greed, leisure and labor, liberation and disaster.
In 1968, folklorist Archie Green penned the preface for Railroad Songs and Ballads, a compilation of twenty songs dating back to the 1930s culled from the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song. He wrote, “Few folksong collectors in the United States have not encountered at least one railroad song…. For a century and a half the iron horse raced across the continent; this journey was as much in the imagination as it was over the land.”
The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has its own collections of train lore, from documentation of Folklife Festival railway occupational culture programs to Smithsonian Folkways albums of railroad songs and sounds. This Folkways playlist includes some classic train songs, but its scope is particular to the Transcontinental Railroad. It is a selective soundtrack of experiences associated with this historical endeavor, a mixtape of music that echoes the railroad’s impact on American culture.
1. “Banks of the Sacramento”
By Paul Clayton and the Foc’sle Singers
Sacramento was the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. The discovery of gold in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento spurred the California Gold Rush, a global migration event that increased the region’s population several times over. California sped to statehood, accelerating the imperative to facilitate physical connection between the coasts. This recording, a “gold rush shanty,” is sung to a tune most people associate with “Camptown Races.” Its lyrics tell of the lengthy sea journey from the East Coast around Cape Horn in South America to California before transcontinental overland routes were accessible. It is surmised that the song was published as early as 1855 and popularized by the Hutchinson family, prominent American entertainers of the mid-1800s.
2. “Lincoln and Liberty”
By Pete Seeger
In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, authorizing the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, an extension of his efforts to unite the country during a time of physical growth and conflict. This song was penned by Jesse Hutchinson of the popular Hutchinson family (see previous track). It was written for Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The lyric describing Lincoln as “our rail maker statesman” is not about his pledge for rail service projects, but rather refers to a campaign stunt that promoted his rugged and “common” upbringing by displaying rails of a fence he had split from wood as a child. Lincoln was assassinated four years before the golden spike was struck in Utah.
3. “Pat Works on the Railroad”
By Joe Glazer
Over 3,000 Irish immigrants, many Civil War veterans, comprised a large part of the work force on the Union Pacific Railroad. Many had come to the United States a decade or more earlier, part of a diaspora precipitated by Ireland’s potato famine beginning in 1845. In this song, the narrator recounts his migration experience—and dates his departure prior to the famine: “In eighteen hundred and forty-two, I left the Old World for the new, I cursed the day that saw me through to work upon the railroad.” In other versions, the narrator’s voyage begins as late as 1863 (“…I came across the stormy sea”), when both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific broke ground for their work on the Transcontinental Railroad.
4. “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill”
By Cisco Houston
Using the derisive term “tarriers,” this song refers to Irish railroad workers—and perhaps specifically to those who drilled the holes for and placed the dynamite that blasted through rock and cleared pathways for the rails. The song is most often attributed to Thomas F. Casey, a popular Irish American entertainer who himself had been a railroad worker. It first appeared in publication with his name in 1888, but scholars believe it had already been in circulation.
Whether or not it originated among actual railroad workers in decades prior, John Ford’s 1924 silent film The Iron Horse reinforced its connection to the building of the first Transcontinental Railroad in scenes showing laborers mouthing the words with the lyrics presented in intertitles. During the American folk music revival in the 1950s and ’60s, the song was reinterpreted by many iconic artists, including the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and Cisco Houston.
5. “Echo Canyon Song”
By L.M. Hilston
As the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines drew closer to one another near the Utah territory in 1869, both companies contracted workers from the region’s Mormon community to survey and grade roads as well as for tunnel and bridge work. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had settled in the region in 1847. The Church’s president Brigham Young had long been interested in the possibility of a transcontinental route through Utah and was an early stockholder in the Union Pacific. This song’s title refers to an area near the Wyoming-Utah line from where Mormon work crews graded roadbeds for rail towards the Great Salt Lake. As referenced in this song’s lyrics, Young actually served as the labor contractor, with subcontractors from the Church directly managing the work. While some Mormons were apprehensive about the changes the railroad would bring to their remote community, the last stanza casts an optimistic eye toward its utility in transporting church members (“Saints”) from other regions to “Zion.”
This song is from an album compiled for Folkways in 1952 by ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes. The songs are performed by lifelong church member Lalovi M. Hilton based on a repertoire he learned from his family “a-round camp fires” and at other social gatherings.
6. “Buffalo Skinners”
By Woody Guthrie
In 1867, Wild Bill Cody was hired by the Kansas Pacific railroad, a southern branch of the Union Pacific, to shoot buffalo to meet the food supplies of the work crews. In fact, in order to make way for transportation infrastructure and residential settlement, millions of bison were killed. Once completed, the Transcontinental Railroad accelerated the demise of the buffalo upon whom the Plains Indians relied, destroying habitats and making it easier for sports hunters to reach the herds as well as for commercial hunters to move their skins and other animal parts to lucrative markets on the coasts.
This song set in the southern plains begins with a labor recruitment in Texas for work in New Mexico. Dubbed “a genuine cowboy protest song” by Smithsonian Folkways curators Jeff Place and Guy Logsdon, it tells the story of a hard season’s work “on the trail of the buffalo” and how the workers punish a corrupt foreman who tries to cheat them out of their pay.
7. “Buffalo Dance”
By Kenneth Anquoe, Jack Anquoe, Nick Webster
The expansion of the railways across the United States had dramatic and grave impacts on the people who had been living along these routes for millennia. The artists on this 1964 recording are Kenneth Anquoe (Kiowa), his brother Jack Anquoe (Kiowa), and Nick Webster (Arapaho). All three were active in powwows at the time and represent Indian nations that had been historically nomadic across a wide expanse of the Great Plains, including the lands through which the first and second transcontinental railroads extended. This recording reflects the enduring importance of the buffalo (spiritually, culturally, and materially) to Plains cultures even a century after bison herds were hunted almost to extinction by settlers in the late nineteenth century.
8. “Railroad—Lining Track”
By Rich Amerson
In African American history, the railroad recurs as an important touchstone and symbol. The network of people working to assist those fleeing enslavement were known as the Underground Railroad. Some enslaved people used the South-North tracks to physically guide their path to freedom in the North. In the South, enslaved people were contracted or sold to the railroads for their work. In the North, freedmen and those who had escaped slavery worked on Union railroads. Because of the critical role that railroads played in facilitating communications as well as the transport of supplies and troops for both the Union and Confederacy, the Civil War is sometimes referred to as the “Railroad War.” Among the workers on the Union Pacific line were formerly enslaved people, some of whom already had railway skills and experiences.
While there are many genres of African American music that evoke trains in narrative or as a metaphor, this song springs directly from railroad work. A former Alabama “track liner” and track caller, Rich Amerson recorded this song for Harold Courlander and Folkways Records in 1950. African American section teams used songs like this to synchronize their movements when “lining track”—levering up, leveling, and positioning lines of track. The role of the track caller is likened to that of a conductor—carefully directing the other workers through song and rhythm as they move and align sections of rail.
9. “John Henry”
By Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
Collis P. Huntington was among the “Big Four” industrialists who invested in the Central Pacific Railroad. He also led the construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, which many scholars surmise was the line on which a historical person memorialized in song as “John Henry” labored until his work-induced death in the 1880s either in Virginia or West Virginia (though there is another theory that places John Henry in Alabama on the C&W Railroad). The C&O line connected Virginia’s James River to the Ohio River Valleys—and Huntington envisioned this as part of a “true” transcontinental railroad extending all the way to the Atlantic coast via Virginia.
The song “John Henry” is among the most studied American ballads. It is widely anthologized, and the subject of dissertations, articles, and books. Recorded thousands of times, it expresses the tension between machine-driven “progress” and human labor. In this version from 1958, Sonny Terry’s racing harmonica passages rhythmically suggest an unstoppable force—a speeding train, the accelerating pace of technology, the driving power of human determination.
10. “Freight Train”
By Elizabeth Cotten
When the Pacific Railway Act was signed in 1862, the U.S. government’s interests in rail were centered on the transport of supplies, munitions, and military personnel. While passenger travel would grow in popularity with the expansion of rail service and settlement, in fact, today freight constitutes the larger share of transport across the U.S. rail system.
Elizabeth Cotten, a self-taught musical prodigy, penned her iconic song “Freight Train” when she was eleven years old while growing up in North Carolina. It references the local train whose sounding whistle was a persistent audible feature of her childhood. With these lyrics, accompanied by her distinctive finger picking, Cotten sounded out a classic song reinforcing the symbolism of the rails as conveyors to freedom and escape: “Please don’t let them know what train I’m on, they won’t know what route I’ve gone.”
11. “We Are the Children”
By Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, Chris Iijima, Charlie Chan
An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Chinese workers comprised the majority of the Central Pacific work force, which labored on the most difficult stretches of the Transcontinental Railroad, across the dry Great Basin and over the Sierra Nevadas. Some had already been in the United States, arriving during California’s Gold Rush, others were recruited directly for the railroad from poor rural counties in southern China. After the completion of the railroad, some workers returned to China, others remained, determined to build lives here, often moving to other areas of the country, constructing feeder railroad lines or working in business or industries. For decades, the development of Chinese American communities was hobbled by discriminatory legislation and policies restricting everything from immigration to employment, residential options, marriage, and access to citizenship.
Asian Americans coming of age into activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped the Chinese railroad worker into a heroic figure referenced in literature and other arts. In this recording from the early 1970s, the artists affirm their lineage as Americans by evoking a pantheon of Asian American labor archetypes—including railroad workers, gardeners, launderers, and migrant agricultural workers.
12+13. “Omaha Wind Song”
By Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche)
In this recording, music of the Omaha tribe is adapted for flute by Comanche musician Doc Tate Nevaquava. The artist contributed significantly to the revival of flute in Native music culture in the 1970s, engaging all facets of the music—from instrument making to repertoire—learning and reinterpreting traditional songs as well as creating new ones. For this, he was recognized in 1987 by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow, this country’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.
Raised in Oklahoma, Nevaquava learned this melody from John Turner, an elder and cultural knowledge keeper of the Omaha tribe in Nebraska. The Omaha people’s ancestral territory coincides with the eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1854, with the Treaty of Omaha, the tribe ceded their land to the federal government, and moved north onto a reservation in Macy, Nebraska. This recording—an interpretation of a song from a tribe displaced from their ancestral land by the railroad—expresses survival, resilience, and regeneration.
*** Bonus Track: An Act of Historical Imagination ***
14. “Two Trains”
By Smiley Winters
Nothing directly connects this recording to the Transcontinental Railroad, but it is plausible that the principal musician, percussionist William “Smiley” Winters, traveled a route approximating the path of the historical railroad when he left his home in Kansas City, Missouri, to work in the shipyards of Northern California, during World War II.
Or one might propose that the song, attributed to saxophonist Bert Wilson, has a title and sound suggestive of the two railroads and the powerful exertions driving their rails from opposite sides of the country toward one another. With its polyrhythmic percussion and the shrill roaming saxophone, this nine-minute recording is a propulsive bundle of sound that could be imagined as a sonic monument—a free-jazz portrait of the tensions and harried energy that forged the historical railroad.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
The Smithsonian Folkways catalog contains hundreds of sound recordings pertaining to trains across many genres, from blues to bluegrass, spirituals to jazz, folk ballads to children’s songs Listed here are entire albums that focus specifically on the theme of trains.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Several Folklife Festival programs have featured participants involved in railroad work. Audio recordings of performances and discussion sessions, as well as photographic documentation, may be viewed through the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.
- The 1975 and 1976 Working Americans programs featured transportation, including railroad workers.
- The 1978 A Nation of Nations program recognized the merger of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Brotherhood of Railroad and Airline Clerks with discussion sessions featuring union members.
- The 1991 Roots of Rhythm and Blues: The Robert Johnson Era and the 2003 Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony programs included presentations on railroad work, track lining, and railroad songs.
The Smithsonian is marking the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad beginning May 10 with a series of displays, programs, a symposium, and online resources that tell new stories and bring little-known history to light, ranging from forgotten immigrant Chinese laborers to the complex legacy of America’s railways. Two special displays, The Transcontinental Railroad and Forgotten Workers: Chinese Migrants and the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad, are on view at the National Museum of American History from May 10 through spring 2020. Explore all programs.
In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.
Sojin Kim is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.