I’m one of those people who love trains. I’m not one of those bonifide, well-versed train buffs who collects tickets and schedules and talks about routes and signaling and mechanics and stuff. My love is simpler and less sophisticated. I’m more of a let’s-go-on-the-choo-choo kinda guy. My beloved, Sabrina, is the same way. We’ve been on a lot of trains together.
It’s sort of mandatory that every folky songwriter has a train song in the repertoire. I’ve written a few and they’re all quite different, despite sharing the same genre. I first heard this baby-birthing story about the California Zephyr while watching a documentary. I was surprised it hadn’t been memorialized in song already.
Even without the wonders of childbirth, the original California Zephyr was a train worthy of song. It’s high on the cool factor; sort of neo-art-deco meets airstream trailer on rails cool. The CZ or “Silver Lady” made it’s first journey in spring of 1949. It was marketed as luxurious, stylish travel, designed to lure passengers back from cars and airplanes. Amtrak still runs a California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco, but she's not the Silver Lady she used to be. . (to get a real sense of what it was like, watch this promotional film.)
The story of the birth of Peter Zars is absolutely true. In some accounts he is referred to as Reed Zars. The song pretty much sticks to the facts. I changed Inspector Donovan’s name to “Inspector James” to cut down on syllables. I don’t usually like to bellow on into a fourth verse, but I couldn’t leave out the birthday party; literally the icing on the cake. I wish I were that kid!
The closest I’ve ever come to riding in a Zephyr car was thanks to songwriter Michael McNevin. He operates his Mudpuddle Shop in Niles California, a charming little train town that’s home to the Niles Canyon Railway, which runs between Niles and Sunol. Michael generously got myself and many other folkies gigs on the holiday train, all decked out in Christmas lights, a Santa on board, the works. It was one of the funnest gigs EVER. Lots of kids; everyone in a festive mood. It was hard work busking the train too. An hour up and an hour back, two round trips per night. The train has cars from different eras, and one of them was this silver beauty from the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, circa 1951. Instead of a Vista Dome, it has a “Pleasure Dome”, very much in the same style as the original CZ. It was a blast to ride along, playing up in the dome. (and if you like train songs, you should check out this gem written by Michael, “Two Feet Ahead of the Train.” )
My fondest memory of singing California Zephyr was at the Breakfast Club at Strawberry Music Festival. The Breakfast Club is an all ages, sing for your grub, early morning hootenanny. After playing the song, the legendary U Utah Phillips approached me and paid me shared some kind words, but best of all, he had questions. "Did the California Zephyr used to go through Feather River Canyon?" "Well, yes Utah, that was the original route." (Normally I would have no idea, but I had done my homework on this one.) If you don’t know about Utah, he was a genuine train tramp. The real deal. This was the equivalent of talking batting stance with Babe Ruth.. For one brief moment I felt like the bum I always wanted to be. “Hallelujah, I’m a bum, Hallelujah, bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again. “