Saturday, May 07, 2011

Steam Action on the Pennsylvania Railroad

Today is National Train Day. As I've mentioned here before, I'm a train enthusiast. During my childhood, I spent many hours watching traffic on what was then the four track main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which passed my mother's home town, Tyrone, Pennsylvania. The 1950s were the era when U.S. railroads were replacing steam power with diesels, and I witnessed the last of steam power on the Pennsy. The clip above, courtesy of dcoursey82 and taken from Pentrex's "Pennsylvania Railroad Collection", gives a comprehensive overview of types of steam locos used by the "Standard Railroad of the World" in its heyday. I can remember seeing I-1s, J-1s, K-4s, L-1s, M-1s, and, on one occasion, a T-1.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Phoebe Snow and Poly Styrene

In an earlier post, I asked, rhetorically, why I had to post so often about people who had just died. I answered my own question by noting that I was now at an age where those artists and writers born ten to twenty or so years before me, and who therefore were at their creative peak and involved in shaping pop culture when I was in my teens and twenties, were now dying with some frequency. Last week saw the deaths of two women singers both younger than me, Phoebe Snow, 60, who died of complications of a stroke, and Marianne Elliot-Said, better known as Poly Styrene, 53, who succumbed to breast cancer.

Phoebe Snow had one hit, "Poetry Man" (see clip above, courtesy of jassblue), which never really grabbed me. I never listened to her albums, and consequently didn't realize what a gifted interpreter she was of blues and soul. I also didn't know of her dedication to her only child, Valerie, who was born with severe brain damage, and for whom Snow cared until her death in 2007, at the age of 31. One thing I appreciated about her was her choice of professional name. As a railfan, when I first heard of her I realized she had taken the name of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western's (the road later merged with the Erie to form the Erie Lackawanna, most of which is now part of CSX) premier passenger train, and later learned she, born Phoebe Laub, had chosen it because she saw "Route of the Phoebe Snow" emblazoned on freight cars rumbling through her hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey.
"Phoebe Snow" was the fictional brainchild of adman Earnest Elmo Calkins, who decided to play on the Lackawanna's advantage in luring passengers on the competitive New York City to Buffalo run: its steam engines were fueled by clean-burning anthracite coal from the eastern Pennsylvania mines along its route; hence, a lady in a white dress needn't fear its being soiled by the soot generated from burning bituminous coal used on rival roads.

In 1977 I bought a copy of Geef Voor New Wave, a Dutch anthology of British and American punk. About halfway through, I heard a woman say "Some people think litt-ul girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, OH, BONDAGE, UP YOURS! ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!" This was followed by a keening alto sax, unusual for a punk band (and played, I later learned, by another woman, called Lora Logic) and then by the vocalist, Poly Styrene, bellowing the song's lyrics. This was the group X-Ray Spex, which, over its brief career, released five singles (including "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" and "Identity", which the band performs in the clip above, courtesy of goldenhinde), and one album, Germfree Adolescents. An early British punk band featuring women was unusual; the only other examples I can readily think of are Dolly Mixture, an all-woman group that took its name from a kind of candy that is evidently the rage in British ecclesiastical circles, and the Mo-Dettes, who may have been a touch too arty to be considered true punks.

When I first heard Poly Styrene, I envisioned her as a blonde, perhaps an English Debbie Harry. I now know she was the dark haired, tan skinned daughter of a mother of Scots-Irish ancestry and a Somali father.