Down There By the Train

I'll be in Nashville this week participating in the Christian Scholars Conference. If you missed it, it was at the CSC last year where I presented my paper "On Anarchism and Assholes" (which is posted in full online).

What I really love about the CSC is taking in a Tokens Show. Tokens, as I've written about many times, is really one of the best things out there. And for the William Stringfellow fans the name "Tokens" comes from this Stringfellow quote:
Discerning signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings, with perceiving the saga of salvation within the era of the Fall. It has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair.
Tokens was also out at the Pepperdine Lectures last month. During that show Lee Camp, the host of Tokens, sang the Tom Waits song "Down There By The Train." That song has haunted me ever since. Some of the lyrics:
There's a place I know
where the train goes slow
where the sinners can be washed
in the blood of the lamb
there's a river by the trestle
down by Sinner's Grove
down where the Willow and the Dogwood grows

down there by the train
down there by the train
down there where the train
goes slow

you can hear the whistle
you can hear the bell
from the halls of heaven
to the gates of hell
there's room for the forsaken
if you're there on time
you'll be washed of all your sins
and all of your crimes

down there by the train
down there by the train
down there where the train
goes slow

there's a golden moon
that shines up through the mist
I know that your name
will be on that list
There's no eye for an eye
there's no tooth for a tooth
I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth

down there by the train
down there by the train
down there where the train
goes slow

if you've lost all your hope
if you've lost all your faith
I know you will be cared for
I know you will be safe
all the shameful and all of the whores
even the soldier who pierced the heart of the lord

is down there by the train
down there by the train
down there where the train
goes slow

well I've never asked forgiveness and
I've never said a prayer
I've never given of myself
I've never truly cared
I've hurt the ones who loved me
I'm still raising Cain
I've taken the low road and
if you've done the same

meet me down there by the train
down there by the train
down there where the train
goes slow 
"Down By The Train" is profound song about the scandal of grace. And I love the image of catching the train down where it goes slow.

Boarding and getting on the "train to heaven" is a staple image in gospel music. And in this song Tom Waits takes that metaphor in a new direction. The place where the "train goes slow" in a town is the place where the hobos, vagabonds, and drifters would hop on the train for a ride. Thus, the heaven-bound train fills up with all sorts of unsavory folks catching a ride down.

Grace is that place where sinners hop a ride down where the train goes slow.

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9 thoughts on “Down There By the Train”

  1. It is very sad that we see segments of citizens and Christians in our nation who wish to "clear out and tear down that part of town where the train goes slow, and keep the train flying through for only those who can pay the fare". And, to keep it easy for the conscience, it is rationalized that it has nothing to do with how we accept those who have TRULY come to Christ, which we are most certainly glad to do as long as they can convince us with the correct convictions; that its just politics, as to what is good for society, for the country.

    So, we have to continually ask ourselves, "Are we conveniently 'hopscotching' back and forth between religion and politics? Do we limit the train to just 'the church'; accepting those who get on the correct accepted way as fellow travelers? Or, are we slowing it down for those who already are".

  2. "Grace is that place where sinners hop a ride down where the train goes slow."

    A mythical place created by a mythical god for the comfort of mortals. Since the ancient Greeks, the reverse seems closer to reality, actually. And yet, still, we must "be there on time". So if we are not?

  3. I think the intent of the metaphor was about grace, that the train slows down so there is opportunity for everybody to hop on. All metaphors have limits and unintended consequences if pushed too far beyond their intent - for myself, I am sure Beck, and many others, that "we must be there on time" would be antithetical to the intent and spirit of the poem.

  4. Hi Sam. Way more discussion could be had over your comment here, best had over a cup of coffee or a cold beer rather than this forum (I just don't type fast enough). But just to start, you may wish to dig around a bit more in this very blog....Beck himself I don't think would agree with "the threat" and has written extensively on it right here in this blog. I think both you and I would agree that "grace" and "threat" are antithetical, and you'll find many here who would agree and who see the cognitive dissonance when you try to marry the two. Check through the article index - you'll find a number of titles there working through that very issue.

  5. Didn't Johnny Cash cover this song on My Mother's Hymn Book<\i>?

    I still wish he was my song leader at church.

  6. No offense to Johnny Cash, but Waits's own performance of this song (on his Widows & Orphans album) really takes the song to a whole other level, at least in my book. It's one of my favorite recordings. If you google the title of the song, a youtube of Waits's version is (at least right now) one of the top results. (So is Cash's version.)

    I take the point about the implicit threat in "if you're there on time," but I would think any very ominous threat would be largely cancelled by the inclusion of Judas -- who is supposed to be the person who wouldn't make the train, if anyone wouldn't.

    Richard: In a comment to a post of yours years ago ("Reflections on Judas: Part 3, Judas in Art", 3/16/2010), I tried to get you onto this song!

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