Poetry in Motion: My Baby Thinks He’s a Train

In the fall 2015 term at the Lifelong Learning Institute of Chesterfield (LLI-Chesterfield.org,), I taught a class on The Poetry of 1940’s Songs. In it, we discussed how some songs introduced listeners to poetry who, otherwise, might not have much interest in the subject. Today, people do not value poetry as much as they did in a period such as the nineteenth century when women fainted hearing Lord Byron reciting his Romantic poems. However, people may swoon today when they hear their favorite singers. Music has much in common with poetry. One of my professors at VCU called it a cousin to poetry; another said that it is the main form of poetry that people of the distant future will remember about our lifetime. That is not saying that our modern-day poetry is not worthy. Instead, it concedes that people aren’t paying nearly as much attention to verses in poetry as they do to popular music.

In the upcoming Winter LLI term, I will be leading a Poetry Workshop. In my last blog, I discussed two works by my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. In my upcoming class, I will mainly use examples of classical and modern poetry to highlight some creative ways of using words to express feelings, wishes, ideas, and emotions. However, I will also introduce interesting songs that demonstrate some basic poetic techniques.



Rosanne Cash

Take the song/poem “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” written by L. Preston and vibrantly by one of my favorite singers, Rosanne Cash (pictured above):

It’s three a.m. in the morning
The train whistle is blowin’
It sounds like some lonesome song got in my soul, in my soul
My baby split blank and he won’t be back no more

My baby thinks he’s a train
He makes his whistle stop, then he’s gone again
Sometimes it’s hard on a poor girl’s brain,
I’m tellin’ you, boys, my baby thinks he’s a train

Locomotion’s the way he moves
He drags me ’round just like an old caboose
I’m tellin’ you, girls, that man’s insane
My baby thinks he’s a train

Choo, Choo rages on, train sound
It’s the noise that you hear when my baby hits town
With his long hair flyin’, man, he’s hard to take
What you s’posed to do when your baby thinks he’s a train?

He eats money like a train eats coal
He burns it up and leaves you in the smoke
If you wanna’ catch a ride, you wait ’til he unwinds
He’s just like a train, he always gives some tramp a ride

Locomotion’s the way he moves
He drags me ’round just like an old caboose
I’m tellin’ you, girls, that man’s insane
My baby thinks he’s a train


Listening to Rosanne Cash sing the “Train” song has some advantages over a version of it solely written in the form of poetry. For example the musical version, it has fluid flat-picking guitars and the fine vocal stylings of Rosanne Cash pointing to the strained emotions of the forsaken lover. The drums and bass help listeners experience the rhythm of a train in motion. A disadvantage of most song lyrics is that they need to be in and out in a flash; they also usually lack the depth or the subtlety of language expressed by a well-written poem. However, some songs do well at conveying their messages and drawing listeners into their imagery.

Since this song opens up at three a.m., we understand that the singer has probably been up all night lamenting her lost lover. Although this is not in the style of love poetry that might have been expressed by Lord Byron, it is in the tradition of sad love ballads that have been the subject of poetry for thousands of years. We may also call this song an elegy, or a remembrance of a departed person. Although the lover is not dead, “he won’t be back no more.” This song is also in the form of an apostrophe, i.e. words that are spoken about a person who is absent. Obviously, listeners or readers will understand that her baby isn’t actually a train. “Train” is being used in this poem as a metaphor, in that it stands for something else. The line, “my baby thinks he’s a train is repeated several times in the song for emphasis. The lyricist reinforced the metaphor by stating “he makes his whistle stop, and he’s gone again.” The written lyrics support the image of the train’s movement; they are fluid and—there’s no punctuation between the lines. The singer emphasizes the metaphor by stating, “He drags me ’round just like an old caboose.” She is clearly at the end of the line of his priorities. The song makes clever use of rhyme when we hear, “sometimes it’s hard on a poor girls’ brain…my baby thinks he’s a train.” The singer speaks directly to girls when she rhymes “train” again: “I’m telling you, girls, that man’s insane.”

The poetic imagery is also dramatized by the clever use of onomatopoeia, a figure of speech in which words are used to imitate sounds: Anyone who has ever heard the sound of an old steam or coal engine locomotive will associate the word, “choo-choo” with the actual sound a train makes. The song makes use of humor when we imagine her baby’s “long hair flying” as he approaches the town. He’s in a hurry to get somewhere, but that doesn’t include stopping to see the abandoned lover. She has a litany of grievances against him: he burns money like coal (this is a simile or a direct comparison); “he always gives some tramp a ride.” Is the song alluding to a tramp hobo, or suggesting that he will pick up any whore and give her a ride? It takes a little while for the singer to get to the central purpose of the song, i.e., She wants the listener to answer THE QUESTION that has been tormenting her: “What are you s’posed to do when your baby thinks he’s a train?” We can only assume that this is a hypothetical question. Not only is there no answer to her plea, but there is no relief on the line for the poor girl.


I have not posted again on my Tony Bennett: Life is a Gift class because LLI has been canceled almost a week due to about eighteen inches of snow in the Richmond area. I am hoping to hold the next session tomorrow if the Institute is open. If not, I will post next on my Poetry Workshop. Responses to either bluemur@litchatte.com or ellisonms2@vcu.edu







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