Downbound Train

Album: Born In The U.S.A. (1984)

Songfacts®:

  • Springsteen originally recorded this as an acoustic demo in 1982 along with the first version of "Born In The U.S.A." and most of the songs that would make up Nebraska.
  • This was one of about 70 songs Springsteen had to choose from for Born In The U.S.A.
  • This was the only song not on Nebraska covered on Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. It was performed by Raul Malo of The Mavericks.

Comments: 16

  • Walt from NewzeslandMike from monterey story version is quite a good roundup of the lyrics meanings I reckon
  • Incognito from BrazilOne of my favorite songs!

    It’s a about the harsh realities and choices of life: job and love, and the pursuit of happiness in simple things.

    They were happy. They had something going.

    In a little town with few apparent opportunities, he got unemployed, lost his love, times got hard, went to the carwash.

    She wanted more. She was restless and wanted to see the world, to go to a big town (Central Line). The downbound train was her ticket out.

    She leaves him. Time passes. He misses her terribly, he decides it’s his turn to hit… the… road to find his fortune. He now becomes the rider of the downbound train.

    Years pass, and she’s miserable and alone. Life in the big city is not what she expected. She always loved him and had been happy with him in that little town and just didn’t know it. She’s sick and dying and goes back to the small town to find him. He hears her call on the phone.

    Immediately, he sets off, abandons everything and “walks 500 miles” to find his way back to her. During his ordeal he imagines a life with her, envisioning their home in the moonlight. When he arrives, it’s too late. He’s reminded by the train’s whistle whining, that she’s gone once again, but this time for good.

    There was nothing he wanted or needed outside his own town. He decides to stay and gets a job in the downbound railroad. Even the worst type of job, worthy of prisoners, knocking down ties with a sledge hammer, in his home town, is better than disillusions elsewhere.

    In the end, Springsteen asks the listener’s opinion. Now don't it feel like you're a rider on a downbound train?

    What about you? How was your life? Did you stay or did you go pursue fortunes abroad? If you’re the guy or the sweetheart what path did you choose? Did it work out? Would you have done it again?

    In this song, SHE’s the one to bail, whilst in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird, there’s too many places HE’s got to see. Is the grass greener on the neighbor’s lawn? Am I happy, but I just don’t know it?
  • Nancye from North Shore BostonI looked up the exact lyrics. My first thoughts were, “The sadness here, no relief, and no relief coming. But it’s all there: the story of a man’s life, one he started with love and hope; when he loses his job and his wife, the only dignity he had to fuel his ability to go on to the next step, he loses love, he loses all hope AND all faith in his right to any dignity. This song is strong, sadder than sad, unrelenting, and a reality for too many people. The young man telling his story ( in the clarity of anguish and hopelessness) reminds me of the character Casey Affleck played in the film
    “Manchester-by-the-Sea,” a real town here on the North shore. He kids were killed because he made a stupid mistake; no, his life is never going to get better ever, he just CAN’T anymore and won’t. When I looked up opinions on the meaning, I found that one critic said “ the saddest song Springsteen has ever written,” and another said, “ There it is in the song, the entire story.” Another critic said, “ This is the weakest song Springsteen ever wrote.”
    I agree entirely with the first two opinions. Maybe the one reviewer felt the song was weak because it
    isn’t nuanced nor does it contain the “closure” we, the listeners, wanted at first. But it’s quite brilliant in it’s concise concrete torment ( I picture a cement block) in the present and in whatever future the young man will allow himself to have, probably not much of one.
    I have to compare the Chuck Berry song to understand the relationship of Springsteen’s powerful vision to Berry’s.
    Yes, many, many thanks, Jim, for telling the similar event which happened to you. As I was feeling in the song even though it simply couldn’t be possible, I was hoping your girl was back at your apartment.
    Unlike the young man in the song, however, I think I think I can tell from your tone and your joke that “nobody ever steals wet laundry,” that you’ve had the resilience to move on. In your story, you provided the retrieval of hope and the will to live and love which does not come in Springsteen’s song or in “Manchester-by-the-Sea.” Thanks for that. It’s powerful and right but tremendously hard to sit with despair.
  • Tai Irwin from BostonYou rubes - he stole this title and theme from Chuck Berry - 1957.
  • Mike from Monterey, CaJay from Kalamazoo missed a key line in his analysis, a line that clearly communicates the protagonist's vision is a dream: "Nights as I sleep, I hear that whistle whining, I feel her kiss in the misty rain..."

    "Nights as I sleep" means that hearing the train whistle, feeling his estranged wife's kiss, all takes place in a dream. Then, in the next verse, when he sings about "last night," it's implied that his dreaming continues -- it happens nearly every night -- and hearing her voice, running through the woods and bursting through the front door, etc. -- all of that is a dream of a heartbroken and tormented man.

    Yes, he does end up on a railroad gang. Maybe that's a job, maybe in his spiral downward he ends up breaking the law and going to prison -- we don't know. I think Springsteen suggests that some time has passed -- maybe months or years -- and this man still hasn't been able to get his life together. He hasn't recovered from his wife's leaving.

    Rather than anything sinister , as Jay suggests, I think this song is a heartbreaking masterpiece that conveys the harsh realities of life. With Springsteen the artist and singer, it also conveys a quiet strength and dignity, and some hope, I think, that the man will one day get off the "downbound train."
  • Rick from El Paso, TxI also don't think its a story about murder, its a story of a tortured soul. He loses his job, he loses his girl, his love goes bad, times get hard and she just said,
    "Joe I gotta go
    We had it once we ain't got it any more"
    Now he just knocks down them crossties because he's punishing himself, with his job and with his dreams.
    When times get hard some of us do have trouble seperating the wishfullness our fleeting dreams with the stress and disappoint of our reality.
    And Jim from fla, GREAT STORY. 4 truths to live by.
  • Jen from Downey, CaI do not agree that he killed his wife.. I do agree this is a darn song.
    "you were cry- cryin you were so alone" is so powerful..
    To Jim, wow great story.one of my favs from BITUSA.. for sure.
  • William from Carlsbad, NmI didn't see the song as a man murdering his ex-lover, but he was sent to prison for breaking and entering possibly. "I put on my jacket, I ran through the woods, I ran till I thought my chest would explode. There in the clear beyond the highway, in the moonlight our weddin' house showed. I ran through the yard, burst through the front door, head poundin' hard up stairs I climbed, but it was dark our bed was empty and I heard that lone whistle whine and I dropped to my knees and my hands and cried..."
  • Jay from Kalamazoo, MiBest song from Born in the U.S.A. Like Bob Dylan's, "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts", this song is a perfect, self-contained story. Unlike Dylan's song, it is not straightforward at all, but there are a lot of clues to its meaning. I used to think that in the middle section the narrator was in a dream, but the last section didn't jibe at all. Why would he be swinging a sledgehammer on a railroad gang (chain gang)? Clearly, he has been convicted of a crime. What crime? I would say the murder of his former lover. If you consider the first part of the third stanza, "Last night I heard your voice,You were crying, crying, you were so alone, You said your love had never died,You were waiting for me at home," this sounds more like a plea from his former lover who is saying anything to save her life. It comes off as a dream because the singer is in a psychotic state and watching the events unfold as if in a dream. After he kills her, he runs away from the murder scene. When he stops running he realizes what he has done and then returns to the scene of the crime where his lover lies dead. The "long whistle whine" could be the sound of approaching police cars.
  • Jim from Long Beach, CaThis song is sheer brilliance. It captures the essence of the American Dream taking a s--t. It is so real and sad at the same time...
  • Ret from Bristol, United KingdomThis is a great example of Springsteen's lucidity as a songwriter. "Last night I heard your voice.." and you're right there in the clearing watching him go through all that. The drums bashing the reality back again with another scene from the car wash brings it home nicely. Sweet organ riffs too
  • Martin from Chichester, United Kingdomyeh this together with my hometown, im on fire, im goin down and dancing in the dark are my favourite songs from the born in the USA album
  • Tasmanian from Toronto, OnWorking class hero at his best! Even if you haven't lost your job or girl, you feel you can relate to riding on a "Downbound Train"
  • Marshall from Sacramento, CaMan, Jim, what a story! Agreed that this is a haunting song. The images are so stark.
  • Jim from Cocoa Beach, FlI really have an dramatic tie to this song.

    In 1981 my girlfriend had just left me to go back to her Ex, and I was pretty despondent about the whole thing. Just said 'Sorry, but I gotta go' just like in the song. No kiss goodbye either.

    I went to the Laundo-mat to do a load of laundry late one evening shortly afterward. I was sitting in a chair reading a Steven King novel and trying to get my mind off of it, nodding occasionally as the rhythm of the dryers lulled me and then the payphone on the wall rang. I got up and answered it and it was her, crying hysterically that she had been wrong and was home waiting for me in the apartment.
    I didn't ask the obvious question of how she knew I was at the Laudro-mat; I just dropped the phone and ran and tripped over the chair I had been sitting in. As I rolled over and looked up, I noticed the phone handle was in the receiver and the Laundro-mat was empty. Did I just nod off in my chair and have a dream and then fall onto the floor, or did the phone call really happen?

    My brain was not hitting on all cylinders, but I had to be sure. I ran out of the Laundro-mat to my car; just left everything: my laundry, stack of quarters, bleach, everything. I drove like hell through the rain back to my apartment in a cold sweat and busted through the front door. My apartment was of course empty, and I just sagged to the floor and wept with rage and self-pity.

    I slept that night on my living room carpet until the morning. When I awoke, I was sure that I had dreamt the whole thing. To make sure, I went back to the laundro-mat and found that someone had gotten the quarters, but my wet laundry was still there.

    A couple of years or so later, I heard "Downbound Train" and it brought it all back. That was eerie.

    What did I learn from this?
    1. The mind has an infinite capacity for subtle self torture.
    2. Artists have their insights inspired by personal pain.
    3. Never read Steven King when you are depressed.
    4. Nobody steals wet laundry.

  • Simonj from Melbourne, AustraliaThis is my favorite song from Born in the USA, it's so evocotive.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Paul Williams

Paul WilliamsSongwriter Interviews

He's a singer and an actor, but as a songwriter Paul helped make Kermit a cultured frog, turned a bank commercial into a huge hit and made love both "exciting and new" and "soft as an easy chair."

Tommy James

Tommy JamesSongwriter Interviews

"Mony Mony." "Crimson and Clover." "Draggin' The Line." The hits kept coming for Tommy James, and in a plot line fit for a movie, his record company was controlled by the mafia.

Dr. John

Dr. JohnSongwriter Interviews

The good doctor shares some candid insights on recording with Phil Spector and The Black Keys.

Vanessa Carlton

Vanessa CarltonSongwriter Interviews

The "A Thousand Miles" singer on what she thinks of her song being used in White Chicks and how she captured a song from a dream.

John Parr

John ParrSongwriter Interviews

John tells the "St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)" story and explains why he disappeared for so long.

Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes

Chris Robinson of The Black CrowesSongwriter Interviews

"Great songwriters don't necessarily have hit songs," says Chris. He's written a bunch, but his fans are more interested in the intricate jams.