THE JAZZ TRAIN AND
And mothers with their babes asleep go rickin' to that gentle beat go rockin' to that gentle beat the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.
—Steve Goodman, “City of New Orleans”
Starting in the late 1920s, the train began to be seen as the nation's foremost nostalgic symbol of progress—the totemic subject of the country's experience of industrialization. Many histories of the train often discuss only the demise of the railroads relative to the automobile in this period and note the industry's two swan songs: the streamliners of the 1930s and the massive troop movements on trains in World War II. 1 Regardless of the industry's fortunes, however, swing-era Americans read their history through the train as through no other single object, symbol, or metaphor. “John Henry” was celebrated as the “greatest folk ballad in American life” in the 1930s, and several books and plays about the folk hero appeared, including a Broadway production starring Paul Robeson. Another Broadway play, “Heavenly Express” (1940), celebrated the folklore of railroad men and their hobo opposites. 2 The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad's “Fair of the Iron Horse” and the Chicago Railroad Fair drew huge crowds in 1927 and 1948—surprising even their promoters—and railroad industry exhibits were mainstays of national expositions such as the Chicago Century of Progress of 1933–34 and the New York World's Fair of 1939–40. A New York Times drama critic wrote of the “Railroads on Parade” exhibit at the latter fair, “A good deal of the romance of human progress has been caught in this hour of railroad spectacle.” 3