Rhythm on the Rails: A Celebration of Clinton’s Legacy

Railroads and music don’t typically go hand in hand. That is, unless you’re the City of Clinton, South Carolina, and your legacy is built upon railroads and the music inspired by the era.

On Saturday, May 16, 2015, the City of Clinton will hold its inaugural Rhythm on the Rails event in downtown Clinton, beside the railroad tracks from 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. Mary-Wallace Riley, the Special Projects Coordinator for the City of Clinton said, “The Rhythm on the Rails spring festival will provide visitors with a taste of what Clinton has to offer while showcasing what our town was built around—the railroad and the great music of the train era.”

A celebration of the city of Clinton, the all-day event will focus on the local railways and the music inspired by the train era. In the 1920s, folk music, rhythm & blues, bluegrass music, and boogie woogie spread with the construction of the railroads, typically from the South to the North. Piano players of the time developed a style that allowed them to imitate the rhythm of the train. This influence is often seen in Duke Ellington’s music of that time. Ellington and his band spent the majority of the ’20s traveling across the U.S. via train. You can hear the train influence in pieces such as “Daybreak Express” and “Take the A Train.”

The barrelhouse piano jazz style imitated the sounds of the early railroads. This method replicates the jolting sounds of traveling over bridges, going through tunnels, and rolling over switches. Even the rhythms of bluegrass unintentionally seem to echo the sounds of the train.

Railroads and music are the building blocks of Clinton’s history. Laurens County is the birthplace to great country and blues artists such as Pink Anderson, Arthur Smith, and Reverend Gary Davis.

Clinton began as a small crossroads town, known as “Five Points” on the Eastern side of Laurens County. After the railroad was built, the town thrived and was subsequently named after Henry Clinton Young.

But Clinton was the town that almost wasn’t. Original plans called for the trains to bypass the small town. Determined residents of the burgeoning town approached the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and persuaded them to ultimately run the tracks through downtown Clinton.

Today Clinton is a vibrant, family-oriented community that has flourished while maintaining its small-town charm. The historic downtown boasts unique architecture, local cuisine, and southern hospitality. More than 30 trains travel through Clinton each day: It’s a local joke in Clinton that you can count on being detained by a train while going through town. 

Rhythm on the Rails will kick off at 9:00 a.m. with a 5K run. At 10:00 a.m., opening ceremonies will commemorate the train heritage of the town. The stage at the Municipal Center and the Depot will feature music from local entertainers, school groups, and performing artists. Blues musicians will take center stage, both performing and educating about the musical history of Clinton.

Riley says, “Trains are an attraction for young and old alike—they unite the generations.” The full-day festival on May 16 will include historical train displays, food vendors, local and regional artists and crafters, and a trackless train. A children’s corner will include face painting, games, bounce houses, and rides. The area will also feature a special ‘engineer area’ where young engineers can ride on a special train and create train-related arts and crafts.

The evening will conclude with a street dance from 6-9 p.m. with music provided by blues band Elliott and the Untouchables (pictured left).

For additional information, visit the City of Clinton’s home page.

Article by Deb Peluso.