Pop songs are more or less straightforward “reflections” of the society and culture in which they were produced. Songs are most valuable for addressing what concerns people, how they see issues, and how they express their hopes, their ideals, their anger, and their frustrations.

Of course, songs are almost always open to multiple interpretations. For example, in the 1960s Puff the Magic Dragon was widely associated with marijuana and its effects. Yet the lyricist, Leonard Lipton, claimed that the song was about the loss of childhood innocence. Co-writer, Peter Yarrow has frequently explained that Puff is about the hardships of growing older and has no relationship to drug-taking. He has also said of the song that it “never had any meaning other than the obvious one” and is about the “loss of innocence in children.” Evidently this interpretation prevailed because by the 1970s,Puff had become standard repertory at nursery schools and children’s sing-alongs. The richness of using songs as sources for understanding history – and the need to delve deeply into the available evidence when doing so – lies in their openness to such multiple uses and interpretations.

Pop songs give a voice to what people are thinking. There may be exceptions, but rarely do songwriters just sit down and write a song. The song must come from somewhere, be it a personal experience or be it from the collective national experience. Artists write according to their experiences and what they believe will sell. To appeal to their audiences, pop song writers have to write what the audiences want by adapting to the time.

When listening to or interpreting a song, I always try to set the song in some kind of historical setting. I usually ask the question: What was going on in the world that inspired the writer to produce this particular song? For example, I believe that only during the Great Depression of 1929-1933 would someone write a song entitled Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? And only after the Depression and only when economic recovery was seen to be a reality would a songwriter pen Happy Days Are Here Again. Furthermore, when Pearl Harbor was attacked and our nation became embroiled in a global war, the national consciousness was expressed in such songs as We Did It Before (And We Can Do It Again), Remember Pearl Harbor, and Goodbye Mama, (I’m Off To Yokohama).

Songs serve to unify groups of people and to move them to common action or help them express their common emotions. Certain songs become “anthems” for particular generations, as Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind became for many in the 1960s. In times of national crisis, certain songs seem especially appropriate, such as Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. These songs express widely-shared values or experiences and emotions that help to define a group’s identity and solidarity.

One of those widely-shared emotions was the feeling of separation and loneliness caused by World War Two. Waiting for that parting and aloneness to end was the context for the song and those feelings were felt both by those manning the front lines and by those coping on the home front. Martin Block and Sunny Skylar captured those feelings in their 1945 song, Waitin’ For The Train To Come Home. Saying goodbye to home, to family, to lovers was a common experience for a majority of people. The sense of homesickness, of being away from loved ones, especially during holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries all contributed to this sense of loneliness. Waiting for it all to end and for a return to some kind of normal life again was the common thread for most people who lived through those war years.

Waitin’ For The Train To Come In was in a long line of “waiting songs” that included Counting The Days, Gee, It’s Good To Hold You, I’m Glad I Waited For You, You’ll Never Know, I’ll Walk Alone, My Guy’s Coming Home, I’ll Wait For You, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, I’m Gonna See My Baby, and I Don’t Want To Walk Without You to name just a few. Of all the “waiting songs,” the Block/Skylar piece most poignantly captured the feelings of lonesomeness, of anticipation, and of waiting for it all to be over with these words:
Waitin’ for the train to come in
Waitin’ for my man to come home

I’ve counted every minute of each live long day
Been so melancholy since he went away
I’ve shed a million teardrops or more
Waitin’ for the one I adore

I’m waitin’ in the depot by the railroad track
Lookin’ for the choo, choo train that brings him back
I’m waitin’ for my life to begin
Waitin’ for the train to come in

I’m waitin’ in the depot by the railroad track
Lookin’ for the choo, choo train that brings him back
I’m waitin’ for my life to begin

Waitin’ for the train to come in
Waitin’, waitin’, I’m waitin’ for the train to come in

Renown jazz singer Peggy Lee, who had developed a trademark sultry purr to her voice was the perfect instrument to convey the expressive emotion of the song. She had had the most popular version of the song, peaking at #4 on the Billboard charts. Other charted versions of the song were performed by Harry James and by Johnny Long.

Peggy Lee circa 1945

Peggy Lee circa 1945

To listen to a version of the song, click on the song title. To download a song, right click on the song title, then right click on Save target as
Peggy Lee, Dave Barbour and his Orchestra, guitar solo by Dave Barbour Waitin’ For The Train To Come In
Harry James and his Orchestra, vocals by Kitty Kallen Waitin’ For The Train To Come In
Johnny Long and his Orchestra and Dick Robertson Waitin’ For The Train To Come In


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