Trains have always held a fascination for musicians. As Paul Simon wrote, ďEverybody loves the sound of a train in the distance.Ē Harmonica players coax the sounds of a train starting up at the station, slowly gaining speed and then rolling on down the tracks with a high-pitched, long whistle. There is no shortage of trains in gospel music, either. The titles tell it all: ďThis Train Is Bound For lory,Ē ďLifeís
Railway to HeavenĒ and ďThereís a Little Black Train a Coming.Ē Where did all of this train imagery in gospel music come from? The explanation is quite simple. In a spoken
introduction to a harmonica solo of ďThis Train,Ē Elder Roma Wilson of Detroit, Michigan, then in his 80ís, cleared up any mystery. It says right in the bible that there was a train pulled up, right in front of the Lordís throne. Isaiah saw it in a vision.
I also saw the Lord sitting upon a throne and his train filled the temple.
That was a mighty remarkable vision for Isaiah to see a train, especially back in his
day. Unbelievers might say that Isaiah meant a train as a retinue of people. Merriam Webster defines a train that way. I donít think that would bother old Roma. Heíd probably respond with, ďIf thatís the case, how did they get there?Ē
Visions of heaven are based on a few other references in the bible. Weíll all get crowns
of gold when we get there. It says so, more or less, in the book of Revelations:
And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns
If youíre going to have a golden crown, I suppose that it naturally follows that youíll get
a pair of golden slippers to match.
Singers look with anticipation to the time when theyíre ďgoing to sit at the Welcome
table.Ē There are scriptural references to support that, too.
While Theologians try to plumb the depths of the imagery in Revelations, just plain folks
see heaven much more simply. Sometimes, a train is a train.
Sometimes a Train Is a Train
When I first started singing in nursing homes, two songs proved to be especially warmly
received. The old hymn, Never Grow Old, had an obvious appeal. A song that I wrote, Handful of songs, always touched off a flood of memories as it talks about the things that we leave behind that are most treasured.
Some may leave money from a lifetime of savings
Some just a name on a marble stone
Itís not what you leave, itís the joy of remembering
And all I can leave you is a handful of songs
Handful of Songs by Jerry Rasmussen
Occasionally, someone would question how I could sing about death in a nursing home. Death is very real in a nursing home. Facing death alone, marooned in a broken down body in a lonely nursing home is something that no one would choose as a way to die. But, thatís where youíre likely to find the Holy Spirit in Industrial Strength.
Some people ask how my wife and I can bear going into nursing homes, because they think that they are so depressing. We find it quite the contrary. The beauty of the faith evidenced in nursing homes is blinding at times.
Last week, I sang at a memorial for Ed. Ed was a resident of Gardner Heights for 25 years. Even though he had a myriad of serious health problems, he was always there for the monthly service offered up by Reverend Ken Smith, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Shelton, Connecticut. He came armed with his bible and photos of his family, and no matter how much he was suffering, he always had an uplifting word from the Lord. I spent a lot of time in prayer asking the Lord to give me the songs that he wanted me to sing for Ed and all his friends. I thought back to other memorial and funeral services where Iíd been asked to sing, and several songs came to mind. When my friend Frank Cummingís sister-in-law died, his brother asked if the Gospel Messengers would sing at her funeral service. I had just written When I Get to Glory, and it was one of the songs Frankie
wanted us to sing. The song is full of energy, and it was just right for a Home-Going service.
I donít know about those streets of gold up there
I donít know about them starry crowns
I donít want no golden slippers, Lord
I just want to walk around
Heís going to meet me
Jesus going to meet me there
Iím going to sit down
Sit down in the welcome chair
Heís going to greet me
Jesus going to shake my hand
Heís going to tell me
Tell me so Iíll understand
Iím going to lay down
Lay my heavy burden down
Iíll hear the angels
Singing with the sweetest sound
When I get to glory, glory be
What a great day that will be
When I get to Glory by Jerry Rasmussen
Thereís even a verse with reference to that gospel train:
The train to glory will be coming soon
You know itís time to get on board
The two songs that the Lord put on my heart for Edís memorial were Jesus Loves Me, which my mother had requested to be sung at her funeral, and a song Iíd written recently, A Sweet, Quiet Peace. Jesus Loves Me might seem like an odd choice, if all that youíve heard is the first verse and the chorus. Itís almost always performed by squirmy, itchy-kneed pre-schoolers in a way that can melt the hearts of any Grand-parent. But, there are two verses that bring great comfort to those who are preparing their hearts and minds for that last, long journey home.
Jesus loves me, loves me still
Though Iím very weak and ill
From his shining throne on high
Comes to watch me where I lie
Jesus loves me, he will stay
Here beside me all the way
If I love him, when I die
He will take me home on high
Jesus Loves Me by William B. Bradbury
As the service drew to a close, the Lord led me to sing A Sweet, Quiet Peace. I had not intended to do it. But, the Lord had his own ideas. The song was very fitting, because that is exactly what the Lord gives to those who love him. A dear friend of mine, Allan Antisdel, lived in Maryland. While I never had the chance to meet him in person, I came to know Allan as a man full of grace. He had suffered greatly in his life, but in his final days, the Lord blessed him with a peace that transformed his face so dramatically that his wife said that he looked like a young man the day he died. All of the deeply etched lines of suffering were smoothed away. I believe that our friend Ed went home to be with the Lord with the same confidence and peace. My mother knew when she was going. When the train pulled into the station, she had her ticket and was ready to get on board.
Iíve included the lyrics to A Sweet, Quiet Peace as one of the songs in the back of this
book. Death awaits us all. For many of us, we have suffering still to face. The chorus of
the song offers hope and encouragement.
One thing I know, and this for certain
All will be well, no matter what the future holds
He will be there to share my every burden
And thereís a sweet, quiet peace in my soul
Sweet, Quiet Peace by Jerry Rasmussen
Thanks for a great article and it seems you have captured the mystery and folklore that surrounds the American fascination with trains.
Also, thanks for the kind words about my train article as well.
Rev Michael Bresciani