Monday, March 3, 2014

Whoo Hoo?

She stands in her kitchen in Texas, getting ready to cook some supper, having earlier opened an e-mail from her friend in California which contains an MP3 attachment of his latest banjo tune.  Musically, this one rollicks an ascending scale, then tumbles back down the line of notes, suggesting a phrase. It might announce a chorus. What comes up for her is a tickling refrain: “Whoo hoo.  Ba-by”. 

As she leans against the counter and listens some more, she hears in her own “Whoo Hoo” the sound of a train whistle and figures this could be a song about a train.  And then, (in the way I recognize a song writer might go about catching her song), she remembers an old story from long ago about a baby being thrown off a train in a suitcase.

She finds the story of the Iron Mountain Baby. In the true story, an old Civil War vet walking along Big River, under the trestle of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, Southern railway, discovers a suitcase with a crying, bruised baby inside, and takes the infant home to his wife.  The valise with a baby inside of it had presumably been tossed from the train passing overhead a short while before.

 As luck would have it, in the true life story of the Iron Mountain Baby, the baby lives, and is adopted and loved by the elderly couple. 

As luck would have it for the songwriter, the real-life wife of the man who finds the baby is named Sarah Jane.
Sarah Jane.  Rhymes with train.

A song is born.

There is a folk ballad written at the turn of the 20th century about the Iron Mountain Baby, but today’s songwriter took a fresh shot at it and so wrote Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby  lyrics here:

This whole musing arises today from my having caught a few minutes of a PBS concert featuring the multi-talented Steve Martin in his role as Grammy-winning bluegrass banjo picker, and his collaborator, the songwriter Edie Brickell.  Their collaborative project (2013 “Love Has Come For You”) has met with rave reviews and, if you listen to it, you might agree. 

The story behind The Iron Mountain Baby song is, in my otherwise pretty boring life, something I get excited about.   For many a songwriter, the images and words that come forward spring from the music itself.  The thrumming, ascending, descending melodic lines suggest something…a whiff of an image, a picture: passing train, a baby.  This then can trigger a memory or another association that feels true and compelling.  

By following the bread crumbs, the whistling call of “Whoo-hoo?”… Edie Brickell wrote a mouthful of words that tells a wild story of baby rescue, yes…but also of a woman’s fierce protection of her foundling child.   

The gift of this little story for me is the reminder that any act of creativity starts with whisper sometimes…a tap on the shoulder.  “Whoo-hoo?”.  

“Whoo-hoo?”  I ask myself. I ask you.  What whispers do you follow and what do you let waft on by each day in your search for your song?

I know I’m listening in a little more closely today to all the melodies whirling by.  Mindful of paying attention also to the pictures they evoke .  I make a note to myself to follow the breadcrumbs or hop that train to the story, the song , or the poem that lies just around the bend in the tracks. 

Listen to Edie Brickell and Steve Martin: Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse


  1. Thanks so much for the look into a song writer's process, Beth. This was a lovely piece and I enjoyed learning a little about what is a mysterious proceess to me.

  2. Love this stream-of-idea depiction of creative processes.... Song lyrics is such a great, and relatively untapped, repository of creativity and collaboration, sometimes between parties that don't even know they play a part. MKP