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The Willits News
Schindel Sings Railroad History in New CD
Rail-ridin' dogs and train crashes
Have you heard the tale of Boomer Jack, the train-ridin' vagabond dog? Greg Schindel, official troubadour for California Western Railroad, will sing it to you in Train Singer®, Anniversary Special, his third and just-released CD.
The words and lyrics are Schindel's creations, but Boomer Jack, nose to tail, was as real, as legendary, and as local as the champion racehorse Seabiscuit.
From 1912 to 1926, "he had a free pass to ride any train along the track. From the Humboldt, Mendo redwoods roamin' down to Sausalito and a-a-all the way back"
Engineers on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad would stop to let their canine friend board. Boomer Jack would bound up into the train to ride with "his head out the cabin and his ears blowin' back."
After 14 years of riding the rails, fed by engineers, brake men, and whoever else might befriend him, Jack "run out of steam in old Willits Town" and was buried in the train yard. His grave, like that of Seabiscuit, is unmarked.
More history is told in the song about Engineer Brooks who was riding "Old 45" in 1969 when the breaks failed at the top of the summit. Brooks jumped clear before the train plummeted down the hill and off the track.
"He landed on his feet and he landed on his rump,
"The train jumped the tracks and made a mighty bump.
"He broke his ribs and collapsed his spine.
"He was six foot when he jumped,
"And now he's five foot nine."
Both songs, and most the rest on the CD, are sung with the straight ahead, guitar strummin,' harmonica playin' enthusiasm most of us associate with children's songs.
Even the most exotic element on the CD, Himalayan-style throat singing, is so playful and so well done that it seems to be just another studio sound effect. In fact, Schindel has learned to "vibrate the entire throat" in a manner more common to Tibetan monks than to American folk singers. The process, he says, "relieves anxiety."
What listeners hear, however, is a dog bark that crescendos into a train whistle, along with assorted other clickity-clack, wheels-on-rails noises. Schindel has also taken advantage of the "incredible bank of train sounds" supplied by CD producer Spencer Brewer and engineered with the help of Bobby Cochran.
Schindel has a field day weaving all the sounds together in Train Sound Symphony. The steam whistle blows. The train bell rings. The steam engine rolls. And the steel rails ring. All to the accompaniment of Schindel's guitar and harmonica.
A different sort of sound is introduced by the flute playing of Schindel's son, Malakai. In Hellbound Train, based on a poem written in 1911, the younger man helps weave an atmosphere of minor-key mystery. The sound studio gods add rolls of thunder. The cut is a departure from upbeat folk sounds and fitting for the tale of a drunkard who dreams he's on the train to damnation:
"The tank was full of lager beer,
"And the devil himself was the engineer."
Schindel and Malakai also join forces in Steam Chant, which is just that, rising in pitch and volume: "Water. Water. Hot. Hot. Hot. Hot. Steam!"
When the words fade away in any of the songs, listeners might become aware that Schindel, despite his playful approach, is also a serious musician. Is there a touch of Bob Dylan in the longer harmonica riffs?
The Train Singer is also serious about the future of Willits, the town he loves.
"Our gift, our gold, is our history," Schindel says.
He notes that a book by Laura Hillenbrand, picked up by the movie industry, reawakened memories of the champion racehorse Seabiscuit and helped put Willits on the map. Now Lincoln Killian has written A Dog's Life, the story of Boomer Jack. Is Hollywood paying attention?
"It's another part of the (local) mystique," Schindel says. "Boomer Jack is another cult figure that comes from Willits. Do you realize what we're building here?"
A Dog's Life is available at the Mendocino County Museum. So are Schindel's CDs. The CDs can also be purchased at Main Street Music, Leaves of Grass, at the Willits Depot of the Skunk Train, on the Skunk Train, and through www.trainsinger.com.