Late last month, to my amazement and dismay, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced that the lonely, eerie, mournful train whistles that have for so long been a part of railroad culture in the United States are, in fact, a nuisance -- and that towns across the nation would henceforth be allowed to ban them.
"This rule means a lot less noise for millions of Americans," Mineta said cheerfully.
I find it hard to meet such news without deep ambivalence.
For me, train whistles bring to mind not the disruptive, jarring blasts that might irritate sleepy residents or bring down property values but, instead, a beautiful, melancholy tone (always in the distance, it seems) whose two simultaneous notes create a sound emblematic of longing itself. I'm among those who hear in the train whistle a kind of vernacular poetry.
American popular music is thick with trains and their whistles. This sound sits deep in the collective consciousness of our culture.
In a song like Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train," in which the Singing Brakeman emulates the lonely whistle's blow, the train becomes a symbol of longing. The same is true, in different ways, of both "The Woo Woo Train," by the doo-wop group the Valentines, and New Orleans R&B legend Aaron Neville's "I'm Waiting at the Station." All three of these songs, each from a disparate branch of the American musical tree, make the train whistle integral to a music of loss.
On his Columbia debut, a young Bob Dylan sings "Freight Train Blues." His harmonica chugs underneath as he howls out a whistle, reminding us of the train's ensemble sound, the whistle a one-note melody rising above a rhythm beaten out on the tracks by steel wheels. Dylan's lyrics are only slightly changed from the 69-year-old original: "The hummin' of the drivers was my lullaby, and a freight train whistle taught me how to cry."
For musicians in the South and West during the last century, the train whistle came to represent movement. Sometimes, it meant a ticket away from a stifling hometown; sometimes, it meant a ticket back.
For Leadbelly and others in prison, the train and its whistle came to represent freedom beyond the prison walls.
In a version of "Folsom Prison Blues," recorded at the penitentiary in 1968, Johnny Cash sings, "I hear the train a'comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend, and I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when. I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps dragging on, but that train keeps rolling on down to San Antone." In the song, the train whistle becomes the prisoner's only tie to the rhythms of life outside.
The singer of "Waiting for a Train," who describes himself as "a thousand miles from home," finds the same promise in the lonesome cry of the locomotive. "Nobody seems to want me or lend me a helping hand," he declares -- but by song's end, the train leads him to possibility: "I'm on my way from 'Frisco. I'm going back to Dixieland."
What made the train whistle seem so sad? Why did Hank Williams sing: "All I do is sit and cry, when the evening train goes by; I hear that lonesome whistle blow"?
John Lair, who wrote "Freight Train Blues" in the mid-1930s, later tried to explain it in an interview: "I just remembered down there in the mountains where I came from that a freight train whistle at night is an awfully lonesome sound. In a quiet country where you don't hear many sounds, if you've ever heard a few trains go through these mountain passes, you never forget them."
The train whistle is about loss, but it's about more than just personal loss. It is the sound of deep upheaval. It is the sound that signaled the end of an agrarian era. It is the sound of the twisted mythic South and the ghost towns of a mythic West. It is, above all, the sound of forced dislocation and wandering.
If the train whistle has a sadness to it, it is the sadness of a nation that has such dislocation as its defining feature. We live in an age when amnesia is a constant threat. Even this forced dislocation that is at the center of our national story can too easily be forgotten. That's why I remain unconvinced that this federal ruling against the use of train whistles is advantageous to anyone.
It's true that I've lived the last few years in Brooklyn, not in some sleepy Southern town by the railroad tracks. But that's not the point. I've never lived next to a Gothic cathedral in the Ile-de-France region, suffering the persistent ringing of the bells -- but I'm quite sure I don't want them banned either.
I think that just as we landmark buildings, it's time to consider landmarking sounds. The train whistle should be a sonic landmark. Landmarks provide a framework for collective memory, a framework that allows people to remember as a community and, in remembering, come together -- and to ensure that the story of the past is not left exclusively to tourism's interests or to the Disney corporation.
Amnesia is the condition of a troubled nation, content to forget whence it comes. For years the poor have been left to wander, have been lifted from their homes and forced into new ones, jostled about by depressions and dust storms, by police and bosses, by discrimination, by war. In the train whistle is the hidden possibility of a memory that can perhaps challenge the amnesia that allows us to forget this history.
Maybe it is naive to think that the stories of violent uprooting and loss in those whistles will be told, but American music suggests otherwise.
And as Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers both have suggested in their own ways, the promise of return can only come when you recognize the losses that got you there in the first place.
Warren Zanes, a former guitarist for the Del Fuegos, is the author of "Dusty in Memphis" (Continuum, 2003). He is a vice president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Last year, he released a new CD, "Memory Girls," on Dualtone.