American Harmonica Newsmagazine
Vol. 12, No. 2, February 1999
Reprinted with permission
The TRAIN SINGER® is on the right track
by George V. Irizary, Contributing Writer, American Harmonica Newsmagazine
Greg Schindel is like an unadvertised special on the California Western Railroad's Skunk Train. At the end of the line you have to ask yourself what was more fun: being pulled by a steam engine or being drawn into a sing-a-long by the harmonica playing TRAIN SINGER®?
Armed with six harmonicas, a Martin guitar and an engaging vocal style, Greg can go all day without running out of steam, or songs. He modestly calls himself an "extra," or-added attraction on the 100-year-old railroad that to this day carries tourists, freight and local passengers on its 40 miles of track.
"I color the ride with train songs, which are a part of the history of the railroads. And I've got, you know, one of those personalities that is difficult to ignore. I think I provide extra fun and entertainment on the trip."
But can an unamplified harmonica compete with both a chugging steam engine and a train horn? Greg has it worked out.
"Well, I'll tell ya', after 10 years on that train, you realize they blow their whistle three times before each crossing. They also blow the whistle once a half-mile before the tunnel (there are two tunnels between Ft. Bragg and Willits), or a half-mile before a train stop or road crossing. I know where all those are. The engineer doesn't just willy-nilly blow the whistle. So it just gets ingrained, somehow. The rhythm of the ride and the timing of everything sometimes locks in and, boy, that's exciting when it happens.
"I've finished many a song when the whistle would just go, who-o-o-o, who-o-o-o-o, or I'11 sing a line like, 'Hear the whistle blowing,' and it'll blow right then. I do work at it, but it's like sometimes it just happens on the natch.
"I must say, sometimes I'm way, way off on the timing too. I've had trains come into the station (like Northspur, midpoint on the 40-mile line) when I'm playing and just drown me out completely. It's like I'm mouthing the song and moving my hands, but nothing is happening except the sound of this train, which is kind of interesting. When this happens, I've actually stopped playing, smiled and walked away. Nobody seems to notice I'm gone. The train remains the main attraction on the ride and I still see myself as the 'extra'."
And how many tunes can Greg pull out of his hat?
"My repertoire does cover most song requests, although there are a few that I don't make - I know the songs, but I haven't taken the time or I haven't really been motivated to learn them yet. I can generally substitute one that's similar or of the same writer or something to satisfy the passengers. Basically, people want to sing. I've probably got about 200 to 259 songs that I could work, without stopping. I can go just about all day without repeating, but I think we'd be getting into some pretty obscure tunes by that point [laughs]."
Popular among the riders are the sing-a-longs. "Oh, yes. They're fun," says Greg. "They're great. The only scheduled sing-a-long for me is when we go through the No. One Tunnel on the Fort Bragg side. It is long, and I call that tunnel 'one song long.' I found one day that I had started singing 'I've Been Working on the Railroad' as we entered the tunnnel and, miraculously, we popped out the other side just as the song was in it's final strains. Now, I've gotten so that I watch the pilings go by as we enter, and I can tell pretty much what the tempo's going to be. And then, of course, I always look for the little light at the end coming up on us, so I either drag it out or speed it up. So that one is scheduled. As for the rest, I rely on familiar tunes like 'This Land Is Your Land,' or 'She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain' and other sing-a-longs to get people singing together. 'Wabash Cannonball' is very popular as well. Sing-a-longs are both spontaneous and scheduled."
Asked what he does if he has a particularly quiet or unresponsive crowd on the ride, Greg laughed.
"Well, I usually complain to somebody who's working the train. No, no! Just kidding. Actually, look for the tapping foot or the bobbing head; I move around and I keep playing until, basically, I wear them down [laughs again]. Even the most subdued crowd wants to play. And that's my job -- to play.
"Although I have had some people not be too happy with my playing. For example, I was playing inside a closed car once when I noticed an elderly man was clenching his fists; I continued to sing, as:others were enjoying the music, when suddenly the man looked up and hissed, 'Will you stop that damn music. I didn't get on this train to hear that. I want to hear the train.' So I kind of strummed my way out of that car. That's one great feature -- you can always leave the car. "
Some of the standards Greg plays are "I've Been Working on the Railroad" "Casey Jones," "Rock Island Line," "Wabash Cannonball," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "City of New Orleans" and: "Freight Train. "
"Those are the most popular ones," he says. "I do mine, too: (Schindel originals): 'Whoopee! What a Ride,' 'California Western Special,' 'Engineer Brooks,' and 'Northspur Station.' "I do them every day, because they're about the Skunk and the folks who work the line."
The ride can be on open or closed passenger cars pulled by Old No. 45 (a Baldwin steam engine) or by a diesel. One of several other options on the same track is a trip on a 1925 MS-100 Motorcar, touted as the only one of its kind in use today. Motorcars -- originally gasoline powered -- emitted smelly fumes that prompted locals to call them "skunks." That's where Skunk Train came from.
Although the harmonica is a major part of Greg's performance now, he started as a singer-guitarist. His formal education was not in music, although he did serve as full-time music coordinator for five years in Willits' elementary schools.
"I was educated basically in English and French and I'm currently on the payroll as a substitute teacher and as music coordinator at some of the smaller schools in the area." For his train work, Greg receives a modest stipend from the California Western Railroad and gratuities from train passengers as well as receipts from his souvenir cassette tapes and new CD.
When he started his railroad gig about ten years ago, Greg wore coveralls and a striped engineer's cap.
That's the standard look of the engineer and fireman and all the others who really work the engines and maintain the machinery. It's easy to get those hats in the depots. Those Ben Davis-type striped shirts aren't too hard to come by, and neither are the red bandannas. Heck, you just about got yourself an outfit at that point.
"But now ... I'm totally in black, with a very crisp white shirt and one of those old-time bow ties. I also wear a black 1890's-style vest equipped with a silver pocket watch on a chain. To top it off, I wear a wonderful conductor's cap with the gold letters TRAIN SINGER® emblazoned across the front. I love that hat, by the way.
"I'll tell you the story about it. One day I was doing a special run for a corporation on the train. As I looked at the conductor across the aisle, I thought, 'Wow, he really looks sharp, like he's part of the scene here. What was it about his look that I didn't have?'
"It was his conductor's hat. It just jumped out at me and I had to have one. An artist friend of mine, Casey Poole, who had done a wonderful lithograph of me as 'The Train Singer®,' had envisioned me with a conductor's hat on long before the image hit me. It's almost like some kind of magical evolution is going on with the hat and costume. I know it's the right image, right down to my official TRAIN SINGER® badge."
Not so obvious is where Greg stashes his harps. "Under my vest I carry a number of harmonicas. The pouches that I carry them in are sold in Army-Navy stores as clip holders for .45 caliber ammunition. They have little Velcro attachments for your belt and make choosing the right key a snap. I stuff a little paper in the bottom of them, because they're a little deep. That way I can just flip the thing up and pull the harp out.
"Also, I carry them in a certain order. I have two pouches on one side of my belt and one on the other. Each pouch has two compartments. I carry a small train whistle in the first compartment, and then an A-harp in the next. And then I carry the C and the D and the F and then G. Those are my primary harps at this time. And a small Hohner Little Lady, which is about an inch long, that I play now and then to delight the children.
"The harp I like right now is the Special 20 Hohner. I like the plastic reed spacers. Wood seems to swell up and hurt the lip. (And) the plastic washes in warm water. The Special 20 has been fairly reliable for me as far as giving me finely tuned reeds that last. That's what you want when you pay $20 to $25 for one."
How Greg got started with harmonicas? "I started playing harmonica first with my friends at parties. We were all listening to the blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Charlie Musselwhite. I can't remember my first one. I may have borrowed one or I might have gotten one from a gumball machine or something. I don't know, they seemed like toys then."
And the guitar? It's a Martin?
"Yes, it is. It's an HD-28 made in 1992. It is beautifully inlaid with mother of pearl and was the only one in the store that had that special sound. I had to have it. I've managed to scratch it well enough to keep that (prettiness) off, but it's a wonderful instrument. I have four Martins and I swear by them; they are strong working axes. If anyone wants a guitar they can take to work, it'll take a beating and it will get better all the time... though I've had two of them refretted so far. I wear out frets and strings pretty fast on the train."
Close up it is difficult to not notice Greg's "grilled" fingertips. They have the appearance of elephant hide with grooves burned in, as if they were designed for pressing down on guitar strings.
"Well, all I can really say is I love to play and I want to play music. If music is your job, you work at it. Professional musicians play hard if they want to make money with their music. Why, heck, them's workingman's fingertips - or maybe I'm just a little heavy handed [laughs].
Greg says the harp, guitar and vocals came together some years ago while he was playing clubs in Southern California. "In my time off I played a lot with friends on harmonica. Some would be playing guitar and we all, of course, had the blues in our twenties, right [laughs]?
"I brought the harmonica into my act, not on the rack, as I do now, but just in my hands. I'd sing a line and compliment it with a harmonica riff. People loved it.
"(Then) Bob Dylan came along with his rack harmonica style. His licks were not too hard to cop, so we all suddenly felt we were as good as Dylan, anyway [laughs]. So you keep on going with this stuff. Ultimately, it really came together as a rack situation on the streets of San Francisco while working as a street musician between 1971 and 1975.
"To put on a rack harmonica, in addition to playing guitar and singing, (would) make you a lot more visible and audible. So it developed as a means to get people's attention and augment the rhythm. It has really come together, by the way, in my present TRAIN SINGER® situation, because harmonicas are so easy to carry. Many earlier train travelers carried one and, of course, who-o-o-o-o, who-o-o-o-o, you can sure make train sounds with a harmonica."
Train sounds are part of Greg's harmonica repertoire, but he also uses train whistles in his act.
"I've got a five-tone plastic whistle that's 'the king'. And I also have a three-tone whistle that's very fine, and a four-tone that's a real old one. It gives a-good toot. I even carry a little, shrill two-tone that is usually good for a laugh. I've got one giant one that is so big that it is kind of foolish looking. It is always greeted with oooohs and aaaahs. I can't do that whistle thing with my throat that Boxcar Willie and the old Jimmy Rogers could do. I've tried it, but my family always says, 'Stop it! You're hurting yourself.' [Note: since this article was first published, Greg has mastered the Boxcar Willie train sound and now frequently treats his listeners to a sample of it during performances.]
"I play other venues too. I'm the Music Director at St. Francis in the Redwoods Episcopal Mission here in Willits. Every Sunday I get to do that wonderful stuff, I work in the school system, I do weddings and funerals, and parties of all kinds. I'm lucky to be playing regularly.
"Much to my pleasure, most of my festival appearances this year have been done with my two kids, Malakai and Heidi. Malakai plays didgeridoo and silver flute and sings, and Heidi plays percussion and sings. We perform our own music called Northern California, Transcendental, Folk-Jazz. It's a far cry from TRAIN SINGER®.
Looking ahead, Greg talks about his cassettes and upcoming CD. "I've recorded and produced over the past ten years four separate cassette tapes representing the songs that I perform aboard the Skunk Train during the summer season. Requests have allowed me to recognize the most popular train songs that America wants to hear. Each cassette has about 13 or 14 songs on them, so you can see that I have recorded at least 60 train songs so far.
"The neat thing about making the cassettes available for purchase at the depots in Ft. Bragg, Northspur and Willits (or by mail), and performing the music, is that the music itself has grown and I've become very familiar and comfortable with the style, which is a mix of bluegrass, folk and country.
"As the music has evolved, so have the recordings. I have a new CD-coming out that contains 20 train tunes and, to me, is head and shoulders above everything else I've done up to this point. The CD is the culmination of ten years of train singing and hawking homemade cassettes aboard the California Western Railroad. Although I love them all, I am allowing the cassettes to go out of print, as two already have, in favor of promoting my newest CD, TRAIN SINGER .
"Performing with harmonica has become an integral part of how I express myself musically after all these years. It's an instrument that started out as a toy for me and as a way of communicating with my musical brothers. Now it has become a big part of who I have become as The TRAIN SINGER®."
© 1999, American Harmonica Associates Newsmagazine
Alan W. Eichler, Editor-Publisher
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Battle Creek, MI 49015-3272