top of page

Night Train - James Brown

Great though Harry Watt and Basil Wright's 1936 film "Night Mail" is with its famous finale featuring the poetry of W H Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten, I've always thought that America's equivalent just edged it for brevity, packing a nation's musical and geographical heritage into one side of a 45.

At the heart of my relationship with Auntie Val was her Mary Poppins-like mission to get me on the Night Sleeper from King's Cross to Aberdeen, at which she never failed, except for the time when myself, my best friend Ricky and his brother Henry overstayed a visit to a "blue" French movie. Looking back, I now know we were completely misled by the pictures on view outside the cinema, and that Louis Malle's "Le Souffle au Coeur", were we able to hang on till its conclusion, would not have given us the vicarious thrills that we were seeking. No matter how sad or fearful I was getting onto the train, what I still remember was the excitement of the journey, and the thrill of waking up in the night hen the train went quiet, looking out of the window to see a different station name board at each stop. Then the hurry hurry of the train wheels as they speeded up and marked the track joins with their beat. More than "Night Mail", more than T.S Eliot's wonderful poem "Skimbleshanks - the Railway Cat", the excitement and magic is there in James Brown's fabulous rendering of the train journey beginning with Miami Florida, Atlanta Georgia, then

"....Raleigh, North Carolina Washington D.C. oh, and Richmond, Virginia too

Baltimore, Maryland Philadelphia New York City

Boston, Massachusetts and don't forget New Orleans the home of the blues...."

At 3 minutes 40 seconds it's a whole lot more compressed than the 24 minute "Night Mail", and the cities are sometimes out of order as he remembers them, but that's not the point, it's a journey through the soul of America. Apparently Brown named them with chart sales in mind, knowing that with every city named he was more likely to get his record played on their radio stations. But he's also marking black America as its heart as much as New York and Boston, especially giving pride of place to New Orleans "home of the blues". And the song, born from a 1940's jazz riff by Duke Ellington, written and played r&b sleaze bar style in 1952 by Jimmy Forrest and combo, stakes a claim for the nation's soul being soul music itself.

".....oh yeah, night train, night train, night train, night train..."

on into the night.

bottom of page