The year was August 21, 1941 less than four months before America’s entry into World War II and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Glen Miller’s orchestra had just ushered in a brand new era of big band swing and its new hit Chattanooga Choo Choo was the hottest song going. Fresh off the silver screen and into the radios and theaters of audiences across North America, the Milton Berle film Sun Valley Serenade introduced our swing classic to the world.
The song is about a train trip taken from New York City to Chattanooga, TN back when Chattanooga was the kind of town folks ought to visit- when some three railways catered to the city’s transportation needs. It explores a now lost mode of travel and an increasingly passé notion of commitment. But the music will be as familiar to listeners as any sound of Americana- which only reinforces the view that the song has become somewhat of an American institution unto itself.
Chattanooga Choo Choo melds the breezy vocals of Tex Beneke (who would go on to provide the vocals for most of the Glen Miller Orchestra’s biggest hits) with the big band sound of trombone, trumpet and tenor sax melody. Most notably, the background accompaniment infuses the opening strains with train engine sounds which help to blend seamlessly lyric and score. Like most swing songs, the tune is played to an up beat rhythm just right for dancing. If anything, the song was marketable in the Rainbow Room’s golden age.
Listening to the song some 65 years later, the ultimate contribution it makes to the lexicon of music is its sentimental recollection of America’s lost innocence. It calls to mind the days before Islamofascism, the War on Terror and even the Greatest Generation. It conjures up memories of a time when the mere mention of satin and lace was enough to raise eyebrows, long before the days of quick flights, 24-hour news cycles and even shorter marriages.
The link at the bottom provides a brief You Tube video from Sun Valley Serenade and features the song as performed back in 1941. Enjoy!
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo?
Boy, you can gimme a shine
I can afford
To board a Chattanooga choo choo
I’ve got my fare
And just a trifle to spare
You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina
When you hear the whistle blowin’ eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are
There’s gonna be
A certain party at the station
Satin and lace
I used to call “funny face”
She’s gonna cry
Until I tell her that I’ll never roam
So Chattanooga choo choo
Won’t you choo-choo me home?
Chattanooga choo choo
Won’t you choo-choo me home?