"Get Off the Track!": Sheet music and railroads

While doing research at the American Antiquarian Society, I was struck at the large amount of sheet music which included railroads as a theme: "Locomotive Polka," "Railroad March for the Fourth of July," "Railroad Quick Step," and so on. Some of this sheet music included handsome illustrations of trains on the cover. In the remarkable case of the "Alsacian Railroad Gallops" by J. Guignard (1845), the railroad is even incorporated into the bars of music:

The beginning of the piece is marked "Moderato - The Train is in Motion," and by the third stave the marking has changed to "Allegro - Look Out for the Locomotive!" The chromatic run at the bottom of page is marked to mimic the "smoke and hissing of the locomotive." You can find a larger image here. It is posted online courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.

Another example which caught my eye is "Get Off the Track!" published in 1844 and written for the Hutchinson Family Singers, known for their abolitionist songs. "Get Off the Track!" is no exception:

There is a lot happening in this image (larger version here; it is posted online courtesy of the Library of Congress). Front and center, a carriage marked "Immediate Emancipation" is pulled along by an engine marked "Liberator," a reference to William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper. In the background, the trains of Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay are crashing into ruin. The lyrics of the song make the political message even clearer, referring to Clay explicitly and van Buren by his nickname (underlining is in the original): "Rail Roads to Emancipation / Cannot rest on Clay foundation / And the tracks of 'The Magician' / Are but Rail Roads to perdition."

Railroads here form an apt metaphor for the message the Hutchinsons were trying to get across: railroads move swiftly and directly to their destination, a perfect image for the goal of immediate emancipation.

Other examples of railroads and sheet music abound (many more at the Johns Hopkins site linked above), but these two strike me as some of the most compelling: In the Alsacian case for the ingenuity of the design and in the abolitionist case for recruiting technology as a metaphor for political action.

Transportation and political imagery

In two weeks, I'll be presenting a paper at the annual meeting of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association in Fresno, California. My paper is entitled "Images of Steam Transportation in Popular Culture," and it will include some my new research on images of steamboats and railroads in the antebellum era. I do not have a great deal of experience with analyzing visual culture, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get some feedback at this conference on my initial take on what some of these images mean.

When I was doing the research for this project, I was overwhelmed by the number of transportation images I found. They are everywhere: on currency, in children's literature, on broadsides, in comic almanacs, on sheet music—everywhere.

One such image is the broadside "Correct Chart of Salt River" from 1848 (from the Library of Congress). This example includes a railroad and a steamboat as part of its political imagery:

For Americans in the antebellum era, the phrase "Salt River" had the implication of a foolhardy journey, with a particular connotation in politics: during the 1832 presidential campaign, a pro-Andrew Jackson boatsman took rival Henry Clay literally "up Salt River," causing him to miss a speaking engagement (this from Liz Hutter's very nice essay "Ho for Salt River!").

This particular broadside mocks the problems which besieged Democrats during the election year of 1848. Candidate Lewis Cass is represented by a steamboat. Such a boat would seem to be an appropriate way to travel against the current, as the drawing depicts. But the boat is marked "free trade," a reference to Cass's opposition to high tariffs. Cass is about to face a series of disasters: Noise and Confusion Shoals, Santa Anna Pass, and eventually the Lake of Oblivion. By contrast, the (protectionist) Tariff of 1842 puffs ahead on a train, taking the direct route to Washington. Train tracks lead directly to the destination, avoiding the complex geography that awaits the steamboat.

Images of steam transport were common throughout the antebellum era. In this broadside, we see both types of transport recruited to make a political message: Cass's free trade about to navigate difficult waters, while the tariff has a direct route to the capital city.

Additional reading: For more on Cass, see Willard Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (1996).