The Ballad of Engine 115

Many parents of young railfans know (all too much) about Thomas and Friends, a TV show and toy/media empire in which some immature trains bicker endlessly. Fewer are familiar with the original Railway Series books by Reverend “W.” (Wilbert) Awdry, which are full of beautifully illustrated, oddly moralistic tales of the terrible things that can happen to a locomotive that doesn’t — so to speak — pull its weight. “You’ve been naughty so we’ll just leave you stuck in this tunnel forever.” That sort of thing. (Many of the “Thomas stories” available these days have been rewritten a few times since then, to tone things down and throw in a few girl characters. The TV show, faithful at first, eventually diverged from the books. Can’t exactly blame them, but the originals have more character.)

Still with me? So it turns out that most (all?) of those original tales were based on actual railway news items. Whatever happened to Thomas or one of his friends had really happened to a real locomotive somewhere, in some form.

Well, once I found out that there was a real incident behind each Railway Series story, I suddenly got much more interested in one of them in particular: “Down the Mine”. Sure enough, the inspiration for Awdry’s story is a rather spooky true tale of railway weirdness.

Still with me? The bottom line is, I wrote a spooky song for Halloween 2015. Enjoy! (I set it to ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, my favorite spooky tune. That song has been recorded many times but I strongly recommend Vaughn Monroe’s classic rendition. My song has more verses so I left out some choruses, and of course the words are all new.)

The Ballad of Engine 115

(Lyrics by Dan Efran; sing to the tune of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ by Stan Jones.)

A locomotive steamed along a cold and winding track;
It had a lot to do that day but it ain’t coming back.
The railyard was subsiding due to mining down below;
The miners and the railmen knew, but Thomas didn’t know….

Never coming back.

The weather was improving and the signals read ‘all clear’.
The rails had been inspected by the station engineer.
The driver knew that engine well and drove it pretty hard,
Shunting cars to make a train at Lindal Bank Top Yard.

The fireman had gone to lunch; the driver was alone.
He felt the engine shudder and he heard an awful groan.
He looked around the train and saw the ground begin to crack.
At once he tried reversing but the engine jumped the track.

Never coming back.

The driver broke his shoulder in his haste to leap aside;
He left his jacket and his gold long-service watch inside.
He scrambled back to firmer ground, and not a bit too soon;
A crater opened up, just like the surface of the moon.

The engine fell in boiler-first, the tender in the rear;
The driver watched his locomotive almost disappear.
The hole was ten yards deep or more; he knew just what to do:
He handed off the problem to the station’s breakdown crew.

It was the strangest wreck a breakdown crew has ever seen:
The Earth had opened up and swallowed Engine One Fifteen.
They brought a little crane and pulled the tender out all right,
But to rescue that big engine looked to take about all night.

The cab was mostly buried and the fire was still lit;
They’d have to dig a ramp down to the bottom of the pit.
They’d almost reached the engine when they stopped to take a break.
Just then that railyard rippled like a stone thrown in a lake.

The chasm opened wider; swallowed half a dozen tracks.
The men said to each other, “That train’s never coming back!”
As it sank beneath the ballast, they heard that engine scream:
It whistled as it fell, and fell, and fell, still raising steam.

Never coming back!

They heard it falling hours after it had last been seen,
Till finally they heard the last of Engine One Fifteen.
Now railmen say the Devil drove that engine down to Hell,
And miners say they still can hear the clanging of its bell.

The rails of Lindal Bank Top Yard are now in Lowfield Pit!
This tale is mostly true, though I exaggerate a bit.
And if you don’t believe me, look it up; I hope you do:
September twenty-second of Eighteen ninety-two.

The driver, Thomas Postlethwaite, escaped a gruesome fame;
If he had not jumped clear that day we all might know his name.
Like Casey Jones and Davy Jones combined in one grim yarn,
He’d drive that train forever, shunting cars beneath the tarn!

Never coming back.

Clickety-clack… clickety-clack….

The Other White Keys

The piano keyboard’s distinctive pattern of white and black keys is, when you think about it, a little strange. The black keys nestle between the white keys in alternating groups of two and three. Why?

Of course the answer is familiar to most musicians: the black keys represent the accidentals, the sharp and flat notes between the notes – C, D, E, F, G, A, B – of the C-Major scale.

Yet this raises another question. Why C-Major? The white keys represent the notes represented by the unadorned letters A through G, but why are those the notes of C-Major and not, say, A-Major? Wouldn’t it be more convenient not to be starting with C all the time? (The “home” key on a piano is “middle C” – why not “middle A”?)

Ah, but C-Major is also A-minor, which does start with A. That’s a little clearer, but aren’t Major scales more important, more basic, than minor?

No, not really. Major keys have just been very popular for hundreds of years, that’s all. Minor’s a close second; the other traditional modes are largely ignored…except by good musicians.

So why are they called “Major” and “minor”? That sounds prescriptive (or even proscriptive), and probably confuses the issue unduly. Personally, I think it would have been better to keep calling them Ionian and Aeolian modes.

Of course, music notation had a long and varied evolution – still ongoing – and all this stuff is pretty much arbitrary. The people who invented the Ionian scale weren’t the same people who decided, much later, that it should be emphasized over all the other modes. And those weren’t the same people who gave letter names to the notes – but not to all of them, just the notes of…not C-Major, presumably, but A-minor or whatever they were calling it at the time. (Hypodorian mode?)

After that choice was well established, putting all the simple note names like “A” on the white keys, with the “accidentals” on shorter keys between some of them, is a fairly straightforward choice. The piano (and the similar-looking harpsichord before it) could have been tuned so that any major or minor key falls on the white keys, or could have been built with a different arrangement of keys entirely. Indeed, chromatic keyboards and other types have been built, but – like the even stranger QWERTY keyboard for typewriters – the piano with C-Major/A-minor white keys is the style that caught on. (Though it was not uncommon at first for the colors to go the other way with the main keys black and the smaller ones white.)

In any case, the familiar layout is very convenient if you’re playing something in C Major or A minor. There’s no question where the relevant notes are. But to play in any other key, you need to memorize some other pattern of white and black keys. Awkward.

Of course, unlike a traditional piano, a good electronic synthesizer (or software synth) can be easily transposed up or down, so you can shift your favorite scale onto the white keys. Convenience restored, but everyone will look at you strangely. (It’s traditional to learn all the weird patterns.)

Which finally brings us to the odd thought I had one day. What if, instead of transposing the notes, you transposed the colors of the piano keys?

Imagine a fancy electronic keyboard with color-changing keys. When you’re playing a piece in A minor, the main keys are white as usual. But if you set it to display a different scale, the pattern of white and black shifts. Of course the keys don’t move or change shape – there are still small keys between the large ones – and the notes don’t move – middle C is still middle C. But whether C is white or black depends on the chosen display mode (pun intended). A minor key (say) is always the same pattern of black and white, but draped across a different group of large and small keys.

What would that look like? Would it be easier to play? Or hopelessly confusing? I was curious, so I created a diagram of the white-and-black patterns representing each spoke on the Circle of Fifths. I was not curious enough to repaint my synthesizer’s keys over and over to actually try it out. I don’t even want to risk putting stickers on the keys. But perhaps someone with a lot of spare keyboards will give this a try, and report back here on how it worked out.

In any case, I think the chart is interesting, and perhaps it will help some of us learn our scales. I’ve formatted it for printing, on two pages; it’s labelled for Major scales. Enjoy!