Sounds of Railroading Presenters

In addition to a noteworthy array of traditional musicians, the Sounds of Railroading Conference and Concert is pleased to have arranged an equally outstanding group of scholars and other specialists on railroading as it is captured and portrayed by musicians.

Norm CohenNorm Cohen is the acknowledged national authority on railroad music. His encyclopedic, "Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong," has been hailed by critics as a "delight" (Newsday), "meticulously researched and clearly written" (New York Folklore), "delightfully readable" (Choice), and "a masterpiece" (American Music). A chemist by profession, in this field he has nonetheless done it all: held positions with scholarly journals, on academic panels and in professional and other non-profit organizations; taught in academic institutions and community enrichment programs; made presentations at more than 20 academic, professional and community conferences and workshops; earned awards from professional and publishing associations; gained recognition in biographical compilations; and was nominated for a Grammy Award for sound recording production. He has published eight books and contributed chapters to 13 others, and written more than two dozen articles, 37 LP/CD liner notes, and numerous book, record and film reviews, all on folk music. Norm opens this conference with an exploration of railroad music as a traditional music genre, and later, accompanied by several attending musicians, treats hobo music as a specific form of railroad music.

Jimmy CostaJimmy Costa has a special interest in and knowledge of John Henry and the travails and triumphs of those who labored for the railroad. In addition to his conference presentation, Jimmy will perform during the Sounds of Railroading concert. He is a well-known as a musician who plays the fiddle and banjo, sings and instructs classes in traditional mountain music at festivals and workshops across the state. He also is a devoted curator and conservator of the artifacts of his regional heritage. The dual grandson of a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway conductor on his mother’s side and a switchman on his father’s, Jimmy grew up in the railroad town of Hinton, West Virginia, a division point on the C&O, hearing stories, tales and songs related to railroading in southern West Virginia. Equally well known and respected as a storyteller, Jimmy combines that with his mastery of several instruments to share a large collection of railroad songs and performs them in an authentic traditional style on fiddle, banjo, harmonica and guitar. He knows many of the stories, tales and lore that relate to railroading in southern West Virginia. Now living near the C&O Railway’s Big Bend Tunnel of John Henry fame, he is the best-known local resource for John Henry lyrics, stories and lore. Jimmy is a collector of railroad relics and ephemera, including widely known engineer Billy Richardson’s oil can!

Maggie HoltzbergMaggie Holtzberg holds a Ph.D. in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania and served as folklife program director of the Georgia Council for the Arts before becoming the manager of the Massachusetts Cultural Council's Folk Arts & Heritage Program. There she oversees artist fellowships, traditional arts and traditional arts apprenticeships programs. She also works closely with traditional artists and communities through documentary fieldwork, grant program administration and by offering technical assistance. She has conducted field research throughout the state of Massachusetts to document traditional arts and establish a traditional arts archive. She is the author of "The Lost World of the Craft Printer and Portrait of Spirit: One Story at a Time" and produced the sound recording "Georgia Folk: A Sampler of Traditional Sound." Her unique relevance and important contribution to Sounds of Railroading is that she co-directed and produced the documentary film "Gandy Dancers." In it, through music and verbal recollections, eight African-American men, former railroad track workers, describe and illustrate the "occupational folk songs (that were) once heard along railroad lines that crisscross the South." Her presentation introduces the 30-minute film, after which she will offer additional comments and answer questions.

Jerry MilnesGerry Milnes is a prominent folklorist, award-winning traditional musician, and renowned teacher of old-time fiddle and banjo. Since moving to West Virginia more than 40 years ago, he has researched, documented, written about, taught and performed traditional music and the folk arts and folk life of West Virginia. A tireless sleuth with a recorder, that he tracked down many of Appalachia's traditional musicians with a reputation for railroad music is apparent in the lineup of musicians performing at Sounds of Railroading. His musical awards include first place finishes at the West Virginia State Folk Festival, Vandalia Gathering and Appalachian Stringband Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia. He has performed at The National Folk Festival, Friends of Old Time Music of Great Britain, The Banjo Institute, the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, the Chicago Folk Festival, and the Florida Folk Festival. His has two books, numerous articles, audio recordings, and film and video documentaries to his credit, and provided music for the soundtrack of John Sayles' unforgettable film, "Matewan." His latest book is "Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia" and his newest CD is titled "Hell Up Coal Holler." His conference presentation, Little Known West Virginia Railroad Songs and Commemorations, will include non-commercial, train-related music and railroading lore he has collected. He includes interpretations of train wrecks and train robberies, and addresses the origin and identity of the subject of the widely recorded traditional song "Reuben’s Train."

Jim PorterfieldJim Porterfield organized and hosts this event. He is the director of the Center for Railway Tourism of Davis & Elkins College, and of the American Society of Railway Artists, a professional association. For 10 years he organized and hosted Penn State Altoona's annual Railroad Heritage Conference, one of which included music content in its program. Through the Center for Railway Tourism, he created both an undergraduate minor and an in-development self-study program in railway heritage tourism management. His books include the classic "Dining by Rail: The History and the Recipes from America's Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine" and a reprint, with his introduction, glossary and bibliography, of Harry Bedwell's "The Boomer: A Story of the Rails," generally regarded as America's best railroad novel. He is a contributing Editor to Railfan & Railroad magazine, where his "On the Menu" column has turned increasingly to topics related to railroad culture. A popular speaker on the impact of railroads on American life and culture, he has addressed organizations as diverse as the scholarly Lexington Group in Transportation History, the professional Association of Tourist Railroads & Railway Museums, special-interest gatherings like CHoW (Culinary Historians of Washington), and for passengers on the American Orient Express.

Musicians will perform throughout the conference, in cooperation with and support of the presentations, to better illustrate points. If you come to the sessions carrying an instrument, and have knowledge on the topics being discussed, you just might be asked to "come on down."