Chattanooga Choo-Choo

Words by Mack Gordon; music by Harry Warren, 1941

A story is being told in this song; let's see if we can piece it together. Who is singing the song and what is he doing? A young man is spending his last money on a train ride home.

What is the route of this train (hint: “the Pennsylvania Station” is Penn Station in New York City)? NYC, Baltimore, the Carolinas, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Does it seem like this is a common experience for him? Who awaits him at home? Does it sound like he'll be coming back? Why?

What common migration patterns of the early twentieth century does this song hint at? South-to-north, rural-to-urban. What values are implied? Northern cities may be fine for making money, but genuine love is "back home."

What language hints at social stereotypes during this era? "Boy" applied to grown Black men; "satin and lace" for southern women.

Compare and contrast the experience of riding the train described in "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" with that of "Hobo's Lullaby." What are the similarities and differences in the situations of the men in these two songs? What words describe each song's attitudes about train travel? Which song is more hopeful? Which song is more realistic? Why?

"Chattanooga Choo-Choo" performed by Glenn Miller on The Unforgettable Glenn Miller & His Orchestra, New York: RCA Victor [PCD1-5459], © 1974. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

Alton Glenn Miller (1904–44) was born in Clarinda, Iowa. He toured with several orchestras and ended up in Los Angeles where he got a job playing with Ben Pollack's group, which included Benny Goodman. In 1935, Miller recorded for the first time under his own name. In 1937 he formed his own band which disbanded due to lack of interest after one year. In 1938 he formed the second Glenn Miller Orchestra, which was soon breaking attendance records up and down the east coast. In 1941 the band recorded "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

In 1942 Miller was drafted into the Army Specialist Corps. Under the auspices of the army, he organized the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. In 1943 the band engaged in over 800 performances for the troops and in broadcasts heard by millions. In 1944 the band was scheduled to go on a six week tour of Europe. Miller decided to go ahead to make arrangements for the group's arrival, but never made it to his destination.

His recording of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" is credited with being the first record ever to sell a million copies. The vocal chorus is especially prominent in this song, which was unusual in big band songs. Usually instrumentalists were featured instead of vocalists.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://genius.com/Glenn-miller-and-his-orchestra-chattanooga-choo-choo-lyrics

Chattanooga Choo Choo
Sheet music cover for "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

Harry Warren (1893–1981) preferred composing musical revues on Broadway, joining the Remick Music Corporation as a staff composer in 1928. However, when Warner Brothers bought the company it was necessary for him to move to Hollywood to write for early musical films. Warren contributed songs to more than seventy-five films for singers such as Carmen Miranda, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Bing Crosby. He also worked with Busby Berkeley, the famous choreographer, to create lavish musical films during the Depression.

"Chattanooga Choo-Choo," the story of a southern boy coming home to marry after living in the big city, was composed for Glenn Miller's first movie Sun Valley Serenade (1941). It is performed at the end of the picture as a production number complete with tap-dancing. According to the composer, there was nothing romantic connected with it, "I worked more like a tailor: I wrote songs to suit the occasion or the band" (Simon, p. 40).

Compare this song to:

"Hobo's Lullaby" (this unit)

"Crossing the Grand Sierras" (Unit 5)

boy: Demeaning, white slang for a male servant or any Black man, especially one who earned a living shining shoes.

Nothin could be finer: Refers to another song, "Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning."

Shovel all the coal in: Trains were still running on coal rather than diesel fuel.

This song was originally the big production number at the end of the movie Sun Valley Serenade. Write a short story or improvise a skit that explains how the young man in this song came to return home from New York with empty pockets to marry his childhood sweetheart.