If you’ve followed this series, you know country music is my guilty pleasure. And by country music I mean classic country, not the twangy pop rock that passes for country music nowadays. The good, old stuff, mostly from the seventies, with a bit of early eighties and late sixties tossed in for flavour. It’s the stuff my parents listened to when I was a little one and I am awash in nostalgia every time I hear Willie or Waylon or Dolly or The Statlers or, well, you get the idea.
The problem with this secret love of classic country is that some of it is god awful. And I don’t mean awful in a cheesy, make you snicker, kind of way. I’m talking jab ice picks in your ears horrible. I was planning on ranting about just such a song, one of the worst eye-rolling, gag-reflexing, rah rah America jingles you’ll ever hear, when a weird thing happened. I was researching the origins of the song, accuracy in a tirade is paramount, and was promptly taken down an unexpected but surprisingly interesting and informative rabbit hole. Now I’m feeling bad about hating this song. Or I’m at least feeling bad about wanting to publicly call it out. It’s still awful and I still despise it, but now I have a twinge of gratitude for the bit of history this song inadvertently led me to learn and that weighs on my conscience as I prepare to mock it.
The song in question is one I became familiar with thanks to an online classic country stream that I’ve been fascinated with for more than a year now. The playlist is a bit narrow, but they do drop a lot of hits by the giants of the golden age of Country music. Merle Haggard is one such giant. I’m not a huge fan though I appreciate his stature in the history of American music and do enjoy some of his most notable hits. I just struggle with his affection for the nationalistic and conservative drivel that pervades many of his songs, not to mention country music as a genre.
I thought “Okie from Muskogee” was the worst such offender. But then the aforementioned streaming channel exposed me to another Haggard hit called “Here Comes the Freedom Train.” The title is but a hint of the lyrical corniness that is unleashed in this hokey trip through American mythology. It’s the kind of song that induces dry heaves and makes my ears cry out like Chekov having those creatures put in his body in Wrath of Khan.
Here’s the catch. This isn’t just a patriotic song; there really was a Freedom Train! Two, in fact. The first toured the contiguous United States (Hawaii and Alaska were not states yet) from 1947 to 1949. It was designed to be a mobile museum that would teach Americans about their shared history and help them unify after seemingly taking their post-war fortunes for granted. Or something like that.
The second incarnation, the American Freedom Train, did likewise in 1975 and 1976 to celebrate the United States’ bicentennial. An official song was written in 1973 and recorded by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner as a fundraiser for the foundation creating this second Freedom Train. This was that song. The version I’m familiar with was released by Merle Haggard in 1976 (coincidence I think not) and it’s the one that became a big hit.
This is where the story takes gets a little surprising for a Canadian like me. When the American Freedom Train completed its bicentennial tour of the lower 48, the foundation was left with a fancy train that had no place to go. Never ones to let a good idea go uncopied, the National Museums of Canada (a crown corporation) purchased 15 of the Freedom Train cars and repurposed them as the Discovery Train. The Discovery Train was a mobile museum that toured Canada from 1978 through 1980 teaching us northerners about our shared history and presumably bringing us closer together. The first Quebec referendum on separation occurred in 1980 so perhaps Discovery Train wasn’t such a success. Of course, that referendum failed so maybe it did?
We don’t appear to have written a special song for this event, which is a shame. I’m sure a true CanCon gem of a ditty could have been composed in the late 70s. On the other hand, we did have a vehicular caravan counterpart alongside the train, so there’s that.
I have never heard of any of these trains. And not knowing about the Canadian one particularly irks me since I would have been aged 6 through 8 as it toured my homeland. I’d have thought such a national event would be emblazoned in my childhood memories, but there’s nothing. Hadn’t the slightest inkling that it ever happened and never would have known about it had it not been for this awful song.
To be honest, I think it’d be pretty cool if they did something like this again. Up here in Canada. The railroad may not be quite the romantic nation builder it once was, but this type of cross-country tour would be quite an event still. Lord knows the nation could use a little brotherly and sisterly love outside of international hockey tournaments. Take some time to get to know each other again and maybe find a unifying purpose once more. Reconcile past grievances and appreciate what we each of us gives rather than lamenting what each of us takes. Just promise me one of the train cars will be an oil tanker converted into a History of Pipelines exhibit. What’s a family bonding experience without a little passive aggressiveness?
Enjoy your weekend folks. Wave your flags, shoot yer guns, and chug those Pabst Blue Ribbon beers cuz “Here Comes The Freedom Train” from Merle Haggard’s 1976 album (appropriately enough) My Love Affair With Trains.
Dolly & Porter’s Version: