Another I got from Cisco Houston — I still picture the photo that illustrated this song in his songbook.
When I learned it, I was a bit perplexed because the singer was standing on a train platform, smoking a cigar and asking the railroad man about train times — that is, acting like a passenger — though he was waiting to hop a freight. In Bound for Glory, the railroad men tended to be hostile, so this made no sense to me.
Then I went to hop a freight for the first time, out of Davis, California. As it happened, Bodie Wagner was living there, and I got his phone number from Utah Phillips and stopped by to ask for advice and play a few songs before catching out. Bodie was clearly a bit nonplussed at this kid showing up on his doorstep, but we sat around the backyard for a couple of hours, and then he gave me a lift to the freight yards and pointed out the dispatcher’s office.
I went in and asked when the next freight would be heading north. The dispatcher said, “I hope you’re not planning to try to ride a freight train — people get killed that way, you know. I sometimes see guys waiting near those trees, just past that house there, and I just hope they aren’t going to do something stupid. So when that train comes through at seven-thirty, you just keep away from there, ’cause I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
Armed with that information, I sat by the trees, playing guitar, till the train came through a bit after 7:30. It didn’t have many cars fit for riding, but I was inexperienced (bordering on stupid) and eager to ride, so I climbed on a piggyback — a flatcar with a couple of semi truck trailers on it– which more experienced freight riders consider too dangerous for riding, because if there’s an accident the trailer can tip and crush you.
Nothing like that happened, of course. I just lay under the trailers through the night, sleeping a little, listening to the wheels, seeing occasional lights in the distance, and at dawn the sun rose behind Mount Shasta, and it was the prettiest view I’ve ever seen.
I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, except that you can find a lot of worse guides than Woody and Cisco.