The High 48s Bluegrass Band
Back on the May 26th show I rediscovered the 2014 album of train songs, called Great Northern Railroad, from a band called The High 48s, a slim cardboard volume hiding amidst the plastic jewel boxes on the cart I bring in to the studio (if you go to the posts on Jon Chase slide show, or the Cosmo Cavicchio video, you’ll see the cart). I played their song about the ‘Baltimore and Ohio’ (Railroad), a lovely number written by Becky Schlegel. I have fond recollections of going with my parents and brothers to the B&O Station in Silver Spring, Maryland in the early evening, to watch the Capitol Limited (to Chicago) and the National Limited (to Cincinnati) come through about half an hour apart. I’m not sure which came first, but it left explosive caps, called ‘torpedos’ on the track, which banged when the following train hit them, a warning I guess. Afterwards we would go across the street to the Giffords Ice Cream store for desert.
I wondered idly where the name ‘High 48s’ came from. Was it a reference to latitude (turns out the band is from Minneapolis, close at 45º)? The query disappeared from my mind in the press of the next record, and the one after that, but when I got home, there was the answer: listener Ed McMann in Sausolito, California, had looked up the band’s website, and there it was:
The band takes its name from railroad slang for the boxcars originally used to transport troops on the front lines in WWI that could carry 40 soldiers or 8 horses, and were later used in the US on fast-moving “hot shot” freight trains by train-hoppers looking for work during the Great Depression.
Wikipedia has more detail:
Forty-and-eights (French: Quarante et huit, typically written 40/8 or 40&8) were French 4-wheel covered goods wagons designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. Introduced in the 1870s, they were drafted into military service by the French Army in both World Wars. They were also used by the occupying Germans during in World War II, followed by the Allies.
There’s more, the Merci Train!
In 1949, France sent 49 Forty-and-eights to the United States laden with donations from citizens of France in thanks for the U.S.’ role in the liberation of France, one for each of the then forty-eight states and one for Washington, D.C., and Hawaii to share. Called the Merci Train, it was sent in response to the Friendship Train America had created two years earlier to aid France in the dire immediate aftermath of World War II. Over 700 boxcars worth [sic—with?] the donated supplies were collected across the U.S. and shipped across the Atlantic via donated transport.
As it turns out, some 43 of the 49 Merci Train boxcars are still in existence, maintained as historical exhibits in their respective states (no, not here; the Massachusetts one was apparently destroyed). And the mystique of the Quarante et huit led after the First World War to the creation of a veteran’s honor society, called The Forty and Eight (or 40 & 8). Says Wikipedia, the boxcars
were seen by the troops as a miserable way to travel, and the new organization was thus called the 40 & 8 in an attempt to make some light of the common misery they had all shared.
The 40 & 8 still exists, mainly as a charitable organization, and is organized into local units called Voitures (boxcars).
As for ‘High 48’, the band’s website is the only source I’ve seen for that term: “railroad slang for the box cars on Hot Shot freight trains.” ‘Highball’ is the term for a clear track ahead, and latterly a fast train, and we now know the ‘48s’ are boxcars, so maybe it’s strictly railroad lingo; it doesn’t seem to turn up in lists of hobo slang that I’ve found.
I really like The High 48s’s Great Northern Railroad album. But they have others, not just about trains. I contacted them and fiddler Eric Christopher tells me they have a new album out, Daddy was a Bankrobber. I’m looking forward to hearing it.
‘Riding the Blind’
Last week I did a ‘Tear and Compare’ between Charlie Poole’s original ‘Milwaukee Blues’, and the same song on David Davis’s terrific new Rounder album, Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole. The first verse goes like this,
One Tuesday morning and it looked like rain
Around the curve come a passenger train
On the blind sat old Bill Jones
A good old hobo and he’s trying to get home
Trying to get home, he’s trying to get home
He’s a good old hobo and he’s trying to get home
Whereupon long-time listener Jim Walsh called up to ask, “What’s the ‘blind’?” I had to admit, I didn’t know. I knew what the ‘rods’ were, as in
Old Bill Jones said before he died,
“Fix the roads so the ‘bos can ride
When they ride they will ride the rods
Put all their trust in the hands of God
In the hands of God, in the hands of God
They’ll put all their trust in the hands of God”
They were steel rods under the freight cars, to add structural support for heavy loads. Here’s a picture:
A little research tells me the ‘blind’ was hobo slang for the doorway to the baggage car right behind the locomotive tender. The door would be locked, but either the frame or the portion of the canvas vestibule (if there was one) would afford protection for the train-hopping hobo. The ‘blinds’ could also refer to the vestibules of passenger trains, though there of course you’d risk discovery by the conductor. See here and here, among other places.
[Edit: See Steve Bartlett’s comment on the ‘blind’ end of a car, below, for a more accurate explanation than mine./ CL]
In this photo you can see the vestibule, which would have been the ‘blind’, on an HO model baggage car:
Here’s Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers:
Scroll down to the Joe Val preview post for David Davis playing ‘The Milwaukee Blues’ at a festival.
What’s fun about doing HAH is that it’s never old hat: I learn something every day! /CL