Back then almost all freight was moved by rail and the freight trains were drawn by steam locomotives, the steam locomotives that are celebrated in song and legend for their whistles. "You can hear that whistle blow a hundred miles."
Maybe that line from a folksong exaggerates, but on a clear night, you could hear that whistle blow for many miles. Lying sleepless with windows open, down at the tobacco barn tending the fire, checking catfish lines in the creek, just sitting and thinking on the porch as night progressed, lots of things made for quiet times when the steam whistle slid inside minds and spoke messages created by those minds.
Indeed, you could hear them for miles. Coming west from Savannah on the Savannah-Americus and Montgomery line, engineers blew various signals at several spots within hearing of the place where I grew up. You might even hear it in Collins, certainly at the trestle over the Ohoopee River. There was a deep "cut" into a high embankment approaching the town of Ohoopee and animals occasionally got caught in the cut, resulting in a lot of blowing for the cut and the town. There were enough street crossings in Lyons to call out both the whistle and the bell to warn the unwary. It could be heard all the way to Vidalia, but there the whistle got caught up among those from trains of four other lines that converged in the "train town." Dreams of following that train to "somewhere" faded when it became impossible to plot its progress.
Some people — far from home — heard such whistles and yearned for home, which is always both place and people. They heard the blue songs, wrote blue songs and sang blue songs. "I got the freight train blues. Lordy! Lordy! Lordy! Got 'em in the bottom of my rambling shoes."
Sometimes the whistle played a siren song, inviting a hearer to go away from this place of labor, lack of opportunity and even boredom. For others, the whistles simply evoked dreams of faraway places that seemed like they would be nice places to see. Whistles could say different things to the same people at different times. Ears that once heard a call that set feet wandering might hear another whistle calling, "Come home."
Eventually coal-burning steam locomotives were replaced by more efficient diesel engines, which necessarily had horns instead of steam whistles. These horns are not trumpets or trombones. There is no music in them. The steam whistles were musical. "Eeee-ooo."
Sometimes these syllables were more drawn out, sometimes close together. Several of the pairs in loud, rapid succession meant trouble was imminent or had already happened. In the "Ballad of Casey Jones," that intrepid engineer had his brakes fail and tried to warn those down track. "He was going down grade making 90 miles an hour when his whistle broke into a scream."
Under the control of a skilled engineer, steam whistles talked, sent clear messages to those who knew their code. But they also sang: dreamy songs, siren songs, sad songs. Or was all this in the ear of the hearer as beauty is in the eye of the beholder?
Sadly, like the steam whistle, trains themselves are passing from the world of small farms and small farmers, replaced by streams of transfer trucks clogging interstate highways. You cannot hear the whistle blow, but there are plenty of unmusical truck horns.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.