John Dickerson is a correspondent for 60 Minutes. He is also a Contributing Editor to The Atlantic and the host of the Whistlestop podcast and co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The natural melancholy of a train whistle

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.”

 

6 thoughts on “The natural melancholy of a train whistle”

  1. I am fairly sure that, just in the way that musical notes have their own “moods,” the train whistle’s cadence does actually remind us of a moan or a bellow.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, John. I feel like this is where it all has to start: with the simplest things…

    Is that train sound among the simplest things? Is that sound core? Essential? I think so, yes. The sound evokes emotion. And memory. For you, that emotion is grief (you think you know why). For me, that sound evokes wanderlust.

    I think I associate the feeling with a different verse, “I Know You, Rider” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Know_You_Rider) and (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJRLC7SgrN8&t=81s)

    The specific excerpt:

    I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train
    I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train
    I’d shine my light through that cool Colorado rain

    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJRLC7SgrN8&t=253s)

    Thanks again for sharing, John. I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone… and before you ask for that other Bruce Hornsby link, here it is for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2oWeWeC5Ro&t=4046s hashtag cocktailchatter

  3. Deborah Crandall

    I love a train whistle. It is very comforting to me. It brings back memories of my childhood in Truro, Nova Scotia at my grandparents. I would hear the train whistle as I laid in bed with the window open, reading old books. Their house was humble and one of my favorite places to be. I purposely bought the cottage house I am in in Maryland because I can hear the train whistle every night.

  4. I think that is a common association. An opportunity lost; passing you by in the night. However, there’s a certain excitement one feels when right up close to the tracks and she blasts her horn as she’s coming ’round the mountain, or the farewell and stand back! honk as you leave the station at a quarter to four.

  5. 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.

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