Sunday, September 16, 2012

Storytelling: Eddie Rode the Orphan Train

One of the themes that I seem to explore on this blog is why some performers who I like are popular and successful, and others are not. In 2002, the rock critics published a list of the top albums of the year. Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was #1 (which I agreed with), followed by Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello and Flaming Lips in slots 2-4. At 6 was Steve Earle, and the top 10 was completed by Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, and Robert Plant. Number 5 was Jim Roll’s “Inhabiting the Ball.” Jim Roll. The legendary Jim Roll, who filled stadiums and sold millions of CDs. O.K., you probably know that isn’t true. So what is Jim Roll doing on this list?

In fact, “Inhabiting the Ball” is an incredible album, and I’m glad I took a flyer on it based on the Amazon review. His songwriting is superb, and the music is excellent. I haven’t heard much of his debut album, but his second disc, “Lunette” was produced by Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos, which I have written about previously, and is quite good. For “Inhabiting the Ball,” Roll joined forces with two well-known novelists, Rick Moody and Denis Johnson, who wrote the lyrics for most of the songs, including the great “Bonnie and Clyde” (a family favorite) and “Inflight Magazines.” Chuck Prophet plays on a few of the tracks.

But my favorite cut is “Eddie,” written all by Roll, based on the life of the grandfather of a friend. It tells the tale of a boy, sent on an “orphan train” from SoHo to Arkansas. Orphan trains were common from the mid-1800s until the Depression. Orphans and abandoned or homeless children from cities in the Northeast were sent to foster homes, generally in rural areas. In some cases, the children were adopted and cared for by their foster parents as family members. But in other cases the children were treated as no more than servants, even slaves. And that was Eddie’s story—he became free farm labor, and nothing more.

When his foster family, surprisingly, had a child, it was given Eddie’s room, and Eddie received nothing in their will. But the story has a somewhat happy ending. Despite this cruel and distant upbringing, and the likelihood that he had rage buried “deep inside,” Eddie “raised his kids with patient eyes detached and mild.” And the narrator named his son Ed, “and like his great grampa he rides trains/at night he rides the iron Ghost, by day he eases someone’s pain.”

The music is simply beautiful Americana, featuring acoustic bass, accordion and banjo, and it sounds timeless.

As best as I can tell, the fifth best rock album of 2002 was Roll’s last. He runs (owns?) a recording studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan and may still perform occasionally. Surprisingly, there is actually a cover of “Eddie Rode the Orphan Train,” by the somewhat more well-known Jason Ringenberg (of Jason & the Scorchers). It is also good, and a bit more twangy. Roll plays on and was a producer of Ringenberg’s “Empire Builders” album, on which the cover appears.

I do think that Robert Plant character will make something of himself someday, though.

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