Written by Hank researcher Brian Turpen
A song that Hank wrote, but never recorded commercially, “California Zephyr” was first discovered among demo recordings that Hank left with his music publisher, Acuff-Rose. It was only a vocal-guitar demo, and Acuff-Rose registered the song with the Library of Congress on December 30, 1955, almost two years after Hank’s death. The demo was overdubbed and released as MGM 12185 in February of 1956. A legit full band recording had never been heard until now.
It is believed that Hank wrote “California Zephyr” sometime around August or September 1951. His buddy, Hank Snow, was in the charts with train songs like “Golden Rocket,” and Hank himself had scored a hit with another train song, “Pan American,” earlier in his career, so he probably thought the moment was ripe for “California Zephyr.” On his Mother’s Best radio show (issued on The Unreleased Recordings), Hank introduced the song by saying, “wrote this here a few days ago, a new song called, ‘The California Zephyr.’ Let’s ride, all aboard …” He sings it with his full band, and it’s a truly fabulous performance.
What many may not know is that the song was written about an actual train. In fact, the song opens a window onto an era when cross-country travel was usually by train rather than by airplane, bus, or car. That said, Hank’s lyrics weren’t entirely accurate (the train was operated by Western Pacific not Union Pacific) and Hank got the itinerary wrong.
This is the story of the real train called the California Zephyr. In 1949, three train companies, Denver and Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), Western Pacific, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy joined forces to operate perhaps the best-known passenger train of all time, the California Zephyr. They’d begun talking in the late years of the Depression, but times were hard, money was short, and the plans were postponed, only to be further interrupted by the World War II. When the war was over, restrictions were lifted on non-vital materials and services, and the door opened for the creation of the California Zephyr.
to be continued...