Give It Up For the Lackawanna and Erie Express Band!


Nearly two years ago, I made a video of the Z scale railroad I built for Lynn, and posted it to YouTube. It has just over 20,000 hits on it now—by far, my most popular video. I strongly suspect that the popular appeal of this video stems not from the railroad, or its electronics, or even the notorious “disco light.”

It’s gotta be the soundtrack, I swear.

You already know about my thing for trains. I also have a record collection. Many of them came from thrift-store bins, or yard sales. If I found something that looked interesting, I’d drop a buck on it, take it home, and give it a spin. Not surprisingly, albums with train pictures on the cover tend to grab my attention. I was at the local Volunteers of America one afternoon, maybe fifteen years ago, and this specimen turned up.

“Chattanooga Choo Choo,” proclaim the big letters. (We all know that song, of course.) Underneath, the name of the act: “The Lackawanna and Erie Express Band.” I’d never heard of them before.

The locomotive in the photo is a Pennsylvania Railroad 2-8-0 with a turn-of-the-century freight train. There’s nothing “Erie,” “Lackawanna,” or “Express” about that. With train-themed albums, it often seems that the art director just grabbed the first train picture that was handy. (Remember Boxcar Willie‘s first album, chock-full of romantic steam-era tales-o’-the-rails? What’s up with that Erie Lackawanna SD45 on the cover?)

There are notes on the back, written by Stan Levine, praising the band and its sound, while carefully avoiding any mention of its membership, location, or history. Could that be because the band itself didn’t actually exist? Perhaps. Inventing names for musical acts seems to have been a common practice at RCA Camden, which specialized in low-priced issues of old and cover recordings. One could easily imagine that the band name is an in-joke amongst RCA staffers, many of whom likely suffered trips home from the northern New Jersey headquarters on the Erie Lackawanna’s dingy commuter trains. RCA had its own studio orchestra, whose output was marketed under a variety of names such as Living Jazz. Could L&EEB be just another pseudonym? I’m guessing so.

Most of the songs on the album are instrumental covers of pop hits, but one unfamiliar title stood out: “The North Tonawanda Chowder and Marching Society.” Well, any Western New Yorker recognizes North Tonawanda as a town between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. I was unable to uncover any evidence that a chowder and marching society ever existed there. In fact, my Google search on “North Tonawanda Chowder and Marching Society” yielded just seven results, and four of them were for a Tokyo record shop with a copy of this same record. That’s how obscure this song is. Pity. It’s a wonderful song, and 19,999 YouTube viewers seem to agree.