Running Down The Line (Mallard’s Story)

‘Running Down The Line’ by Claire Aberlé

On the 3rd of July, 1938, the class A4 steam locomotive Mallard left Barkston Junction on a world speed record attempt.

After being slowed by unexpected works near Grantham, driver Joseph Duddington and fireman Thomas Bray (no relation, as far as I know) made the most of the opportunity presented to them by the slight downward gradient of Stoke Bank, and pushed Mallard to a momentary maximum speed of 126mph – a record that has never been matched by another steam locomotive.

This celebrated engine was retired in 1963 and now resides in the National Railway Museum.

A tale like this is obviously very rich in facts, and Mavis and I relished the task of getting as many of them as possible into our lyrics.  As with our song about Charles II, we felt we ought to immerse ourselves in the story in order that we could relate its details with a sense of familiarity.  Simple repetition of the information wouldn’t have had the right spirit.  So, films were watched, articles read, maps studied, and a railway expert (thank you, John Eccles) consulted.  When we began to write our lyrics, we were now telling a story we knew.

But facts alone, however thoroughly one has digested them, don’t make much of a song; we needed engagement with the tale too, and that came partly from moving the storyteller’s perspective around as the event unfolds.

Verse one gives a description of the engine before she sets off, from the point of view of an informed but unconnected observer – a reporter, perhaps.

Then comes the first chorus.  There’s no beat yet – she’s not moving – but there is bass, and it illustrates the build up of pressure in the still-stationary locomotive by holding a D from the final chord of the verse (itself a D major) right through the entire chorus, so we have:

G/D, A/D, D
G/D, A/D, D

The good old G, A, D is a well, well, well-used sequence with an easy, natural momentum to it, but locking the bass to a D throughout really feels like trying to drive off with the brakes on, and reflects Mallard’s eagerness (if we may impute such a feeling to a steam engine) to get going.

Lyrically, the chorus is from an indeterminate perspective.  It could be from 1938, or from today.  It’s simply ‘Mallard, oh Mallard, an engine built for speed‘: a summary, a reflection – it’s whatever it feels like to the listener.

In verse two, the description is completed with some more technical data and then the movement begins, accompanied by the start of the drums.  Now that we’re in motion, the bass allows the second chorus to move as it wants to, marking the root notes of the chords (with a I-V see-saw to help it along) before moving to the thirds for the second line of the chorus to add a sense of pushing.  It goes:

G, A, D
G/B, A/C#, D

The third verse shifts perspective to the cab where we add a human element by urging on the driver and fireman, abbreviating their names to Joe and Tommy as if we’re familiar with them.  They really need to give it all they’ve got now and take advantage of the lie of the track to achieve their speed record, and we illustrate their determination by holding that bass note (D) again for the first half of the chorus and the sequence becomes:

G/D, A/D, D
G, A, D

In verse four, the goal is reached, the bass walks around all over the place in excitement, and the final chorus opens up for the celebration, the bass again hitting the root notes followed by the thirds, which now serve to add an air of jubilation – majesty, even – to the final refrain.  It’s this again:

G, A, D
G/B, A/C#, D

I’ve focused on the bass notes in this analysis because I haven’t talked much about inversions elsewhere in these articles, and because this arrangement technique is a very simple way to squeeze some different moods out of the oldest three-chord trick in the world.

We sent our song to The National Railway Museum in time for the 75th anniversary of Mallard’s speed record.  It’d be really nice to give it to the families of Joe and Tommy, if any reader knows them.  I’ll be glad to hear from you if you do.

To hear samples of all the songs on the ‘Calendar’ album, go to The Straw Horses website.

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About ludophono

Songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, music tutor, workshop provider, anomalist, unrelenting existential investigator.
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