I'll Be With Her

"Midnight Train to Georgia"
Gladys Knight and the Pips

On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford drove a golden railroad spike through a tie of California laurel wood to complete the first transcontinental rail line in the United States, allowing Americans to travel coast to coast, including from L.A. to Georgia.

The spike was specially manufactured and engraved with the date of the great event—although, since railroad repairs even then always took longer than expected, the actual date was a few days off from the date of the ceremony. The railroad was also a little less than "transcontinental" by modern standards, going as far as Sacramento in the west and only to Omaha, Nebraska in the east, where passengers and sometimes entire trains would cross the Missouri River by boat.

Still, the line was an incredible achievement. For the first time, people and goods could move from the East Coast to the West in a matter of days instead of months. Until the line was completed, a traveler from New York could reach Europe, two weeks away by steamboat, much more conveniently than the months-long journey to California. To get from East to West Coast, the pre-1869 traveler's choices were crossing the Rockies by wagon, by sail around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, or a hybrid route by ship with a difficult land crossing in Nicaragua or Panama. All took months and cost ten times what the trip would cost when the railroad was finished.

Today, long-distance air travel has all but replaced the cross-country railroad. But exactly the opposite happened with the most famous modern song about crossing the country by train.

In 1972, singer/songwriter Jim Weatherly wrote a song about an actress who gave up her dreams to return to her home in Texas, told by the boyfriend who decided to follow her there:

L.A. proved too much for the girl,
So she's leaving the life we've come to know.
She's going back to find what's left of her world,
The world she left behind long ago.
And she's leaving on the midnight plane to Houston,
Goin' back to a simpler place and time.
I'll be with her on that midnight plane to Houston.
I'd rather live in her world than live without her in mine.

The recording, on his first album, is long out of print. It has a slow, quiet country-influenced sound. Weatherly's vocal is understated, with a little bit of a drawl and a slide guitar soaring over the chorus.

Weatherly's version is lovely, but it didn't dent the charts until a year later, when it was reinvented for the R&B market by the great Gladys Knight. The girl became a man and the boyfriend became a girlfriend, which was common for covers and re-recordings. More unusual was the change that turned the Midnight Plane to Houston into a Midnight Train to Georgia. This change, originally made by Cissy Houston in a slow, gospel-tinged 1972 version that starts out sounding like Weatherly's original but by the end is already halfway to Knight's hard-driving R&B record.

On its face, the change doesn't make much sense; in 1972, cross-country trains were a dying breed, and LA to Georgia was a trip most people made in the air. But it worked, and so did the backup singers, added by Houston and expanded by Gladys and her Pips. Knight's, still the classic recording, pushes the tempo, highlights the horns and harmonies, and leaves the last of the country feel behind.

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