I was reading James Dickey this morning. His poem “The Strength of Fields.” There is a line “Tell me, train sound,/With all your long lost grief,”
It made sense to me. I associate a train whistle with grief. Why do I? I think I know, but I wonder if the train whistle is naturally sad and lonesome– far off, disappearing, a reminder of the world turning — or is it just because James Dickey and I had the same experience early in life where the idea was imprinted on us. We hooked melancholy up with the sound of a train whistle and that was it.
UPDATE: A great answer from Ryan Chiachiere: “Train whistles in the US tend to be tuned to diminished chords, probably because the dissonance intuitively suggests impending danger. A diminished chord has a flat third, which is the classic melancholic blues tone, and a flattened 5th, which is a bit less accessible but yields additional tension and darkness.”
UPDATE: 12-5-23 While reading E.B. White’s essay Here is New York I came across this passage: “I heard the Queen Mary blow one midnight, though, and the sound carried the whole history of departure and longing and loss.” Yes. The whole history… that’s it!