Mostly, they just looked at me while I sang, nodding their heads. I struggled to stay upright as the train jostled me and my guitar from side to side. I stretched to project my voice above and through the sounds of bumps on the tracks and the hum of the power of it. I don’t recall any beaming smiles or gasps of delight at my songs. But there were two women with whom I’d conversed earlier, and one of them was an artist who had mentioned, by sheer magic or coincidence, that she had done a collage on the theme of the Sacrifice of Isaac. I don’t remember how it came up, but I have a song on the same theme, and so I knew I could do that one, and I’d have at least that point of connection. The two women both loved the song. Another person told me I had a good voice. And it ended as casually as it had started, as the first call for lunch was announced.
In the second set, with some of the previous audience members and some new ones, I played a Leonard Cohen song, (whose work I deeply admire, but who also ‘fits the bill’ for the gig, as you’re supposed to play some songs by Canadians, Canadiana, as the train is called the Canadian. When I finished it, a woman who had been glaring at me with a bleak face, said, “Great, now we’re all sad,” and it did not come across humorously. I thought I really failed. I carried on. I sang a Buffy St. Marie song, “Universal Soldier,” and when I introduced it as one of my favourite protest songs, there were murmurs and mentions of other protest songs. So when that song was done, I joked that we could do an entire set just of anti-war songs at the next set. They seemed to like the idea but I wasn’t sure if we were being serious.
The next day that same lady and I were heading to the park car. Single file is the only way to move up and down a train, and when we reached the entrance she turned around, put her hand on my arm and said, “You know you’re really making this train ride very special and enjoyable for everyone.” I was shocked, as I thought she wasn’t having a good time, so the comment stirred me. Not only was it an ego boost, it made me reflect on the notion that it is dangerous to assume someone’s thoughts based on their face expressions, and most certainly, one should not assume that it has all that much to do with them! When we spoke again on the final day we found out we had a lot in common!
On another journey, one of the scheduled afternoon sets had only four people in attendance: an old woman in a blue sweater who was very endearing, and a father with his three-year-old daughter and an infant, a few months old in his arms. I wish I could have video recorded his amazing fathering. Being of a visible minority, the universal sweetness of his interactions with his kids was something I thought worth sharing with emphasis. The three-year-old warranting most of my performance attention, I asked her which songs she knew: ABCD, twinkle twinkle, and a few others with identical melody. We did them all, all of us singing except for the adorable infant who was softening into a sleepy state in her dad’s arms. The old lady and I tried thinking of more children’s songs, and the dad suggested Old MacDonald, which we all enthusiastically jumped into immediately. And then the old lady suggested, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.” I barely remembered it. But as we started it off, it all came back, and the little girl who had never heard it before, mimicked all the animated actions we were doing – this brief moment a beautiful sharing of community.
At that particular set there were about ten folks, some who had already heard me the day before, including the old lady in the blue sweater, (who after each set she'd attended, came to shake my hand with a slipped 10$ bill in there... grandmother style!) The lady from India arrived and sat the closest to me, and even though she had never heard my songs before, she was audibly singing along, and well! She was following the melodies and trying to catch on to the lyrics. Then someone requested “Blowing in the Wind”. This I will never forget. She looked up to see us all agreeing that this was a powerful protest song, and she tilted her head to listen. I had never ever sung the song in the presence of someone who wasn’t familiar with it, except for the students of an English class I once taught. I’ve known the song since I was at least seven years old and the impact of the lyrics filled me with passionate despair over human injustice for many years of emotional struggle with the reality of war, but it is one of those songs that is so familiar you wouldn’t normally perform it. Yet someone requested it, and so I did, and this incredible lady from India made such incredible gasping sounds at the end of each phrase, taking in the sharp and heavy meaning of each line, that all of us noticed the full weight of the meaning as if for the first time. We were all teary eyed by the power of a song on a train. The old lady then requested that we repeat "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly." There were no children present, but the adults all sang along, and it was the lady from India that got totally into the animated gestures that go with each verse!)
I have several more stories like these. I have been touched by several important human moments on these musical train rides of mine. One man bought an album to give to his daughter who was heading to fight in Afghanistan a week later. One man approached me to thank me for singing a particular Joni Mitchell tune. He told me they sang it at his wife’s funeral and it was nice to hear it again. One woman was traveling for the funeral of her father, to return again in the next season for the birth of a nephew. There is something incredibly poignant in all of these interactions. The movement, distance, and landscape elevate every moment into a potent metaphor of the greater life that’s out there, the stories teaming everywhere, in every prairie, mountain town, or city.
Stay tuned.. I’ll keep you posted!