Sounds of Railroading Overview

Consider this . . .

"Given the refusal of railroads to die seems appropriate to trace the history of our best-known folksongs about trains and railroads and place the subject in its sociocultural context."

Norm Cohen, Author
Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong

Courtesy: Jimmie Rodgers Museum, Meridian MississippiThe 2016 Sounds of Railroading Conference and Concert takes Norm Cohen up on his challenge. Focusing this year exclusively on traditional music, it offers you an opportunity to interact with:

  • eight acclaimed and accomplished musicians known for their traditional railroad songs both general and subject-specific;
  • four national authorities, each a specialist on aspects of traditional railroad music - Norm Cohen among them;
  • an audience likely to be peppered with those anxious - and welcome - to join in; and
  • a setting in a former railroad town in the heart of Appalachia.
Photo Courtesy: Jimmie Rodgers Museum, Meridian Mississippi


. . . or this. . .

"Traditional music is an expression of values, and those values are revealed in songs, instrumentation, recitation and folklore. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the many roles railroads, trains and trainmen take in much of traditional music."

Gerry Milnes, Folklorist, Musician, Author
Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia (Book)
Hell Up Coal Holler (CD)

Accordion Player

Folklore as artistic communication. Railroad lore as an expression of a people's values. Music as a pleasing sound that produces an effect on the listener. These themes are at the heart of this first Sounds of Railroading Conference and Concert. Presentations offer commentary, music, memorabilia, media and more, and address:

  • railroad music as a traditional music genre;
  • the triumphs and hazards of working for the railroad, from running a locomotive to aligning and spiking down the rail;
  • the origins and interpretations of train wrecks, train robberies and other captivating adventures railroaders endure in music; and
  • hobo traditions and railroad music, including the train hopping hobo experiences of one of the event's musicians.

The Saturday night concert then brings it all together for more than two hours of celebration of this uniquely American form of artistic, expressive, pleasing story-telling. Here's a sample of what you're in for, performed by William Sherman Holstine, who is providing both examples during the conference and playing at the concert!


Banjo PlayerJoin us . . .

Throughout the weekend we'll take in a number of related rail heritage activities, including:

  • a Friday evening dinner train run to scenic High Falls, where music is likely to break out;
  • a classic movie, "Emperor of the North," that captures the setting and the experiences that are the backbone of the program;
  • dinner Saturday evening in historic Graceland, railroad-builder Henry Gassaway Davis' mansion, that features an authentic historic dining car menu; and
  • numerous opportunities to interact with the musicians and content specialists assembled for this event.


Listen . . .

  • to the Sounds of Railroading Conference, June 3-5, 2016, at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia.
  • at a stand-alone concert, Saturday, June 4, 2016, from 7-10 p.m. at the Randolph County Community Arts Center (conference registration includes admission to this event).



  1. Conference attendees are entitled to a special rate of $65 (plus tax) per night for two nights at the Iron Road Inn (357 Beverly Pike, Elkins, W.Va.), just three miles from campus. Call 304-637-1888 and ask for the rate reserved to the Sounds of Railroading Conference and Concert.
  2. An annotated bibliography of sources for additional information about the relationship between traditional music and railroading is being developed for distribution to conference attendees.
  3. A list, no doubt only partial, of railway heritage sites that includes music events in 2016 is available on the Railroad Music Events page.
  4. A long and especially close connection between railroading and two other forms of uniquely American music - jazz and the blues - also exists. To address them, the Sounds of Railroading Conference and Concert is going on the road. In 2017, it's off to Chicago, where we will explore jazz with host Paul Wertico, 7-time Grammy Award winning jazz percussionist and associate professor of jazz studies at Roosevelt University. It might even be accompanied by an optional private rail car excursion to New Orleans. In 2018, the conference and concert are planned for Memphis and the blues, and may include field trips to the Mississippi Delta and Mississippi Blues Trail.