I came to this song by way of two of my favorite people, Bruce “Utah” Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels. I met both of them through Dave Van Ronk, and saw them often over the years — I crashed at Bruce’s place in Spokane and then in Grass Valley, and at Rosalie’s cabin up in the mountains above Boise, and both of them stayed with me in various places, and they both told a lot of good stories and made a lot of good music. When I wrote my book on hitchhiking, Riding with Strangers, Bruce gave me a nice blurb and Rosalie put together a little tour of bookstores in Idaho, driving around with me and trading songs and stories — I’ve never been so damn honored in my life.
In his audio songbook, Utah called this “Wolverine 14 Talking Blues,” but I learned it off Rosalie’s album, so I stuck with her title. Bruce co-credited it to another good friend, Andy Cohen, but Andy says it wasn’t really a collaboration — Bruce just heard him fooling around with a ragtime blues and matched the lyrics to his memory of what Andy was playing.
I’ve tended to think Rosalie’s records were a poor substitute for hearing her live — she typically recorded with spare acoustic backing, the same way she played live, and the power and personality of her extraordinary voice overwhelmed the understated accompaniments — but on Travelin’ Lady Rides Again she was backed by a top-notch band, including Mad Cat Ruth on harmonica, Winnie Winston on steel and banjo, and a solid rhythm section, and it has a nice, full group sound. This song in particular has a great feel, ending with Jeff Gutcheon quoting Meade Lux Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train” piano boogie — in general I haven’t been steering readers to other versions of these songs, because one of my aims in this project is to showcase my versions, but Rosalie’s should be heard.
In the aforementioned audio songbook, Utah explained that he made this up while waiting at the train station in Buffalo, dog tired and pissed off at the world, and the crankiness reflected his mood rather than a general disapproval of Amtrak. He liked pretty much any kind of trains — he did a whole album about them — and was glad the government was keeping them running, though he’d have liked to see a lot more of them and a lot more people using them. (As for the line about bringing back coal-fired engines, I’d say that’s his nostalgia overriding his politics, though he might have had a more complex explanation.)
The term “red ball” was obscure to me — in the old days, freight trains with priority routing were marked with a red disc, and hence called “red balls.” And I’d never thought about getting sidetracked literally, the way the term is used here, meaning to be shunted off on a side track to let another train pass. That was one of the pleasures of knowing Utah — he always peppered his conversation with obscure terms and was more than happy to discourse upon them if asked.