|Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon|
It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk festival. This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of. (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).
At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back. Here he is, a legend in his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"
Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur and performer. He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.
One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest. He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION. Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.
Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?" The answer led him to writing one of his best songs. I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one. (Hi, Jim Portillo!)
That song introduced me to the Orphan Train. It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own. Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri. I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.
But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train. So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon? The result is "Train Tracks." I hope you like it.