Sunday, November 8, 2009
Don't the moon look good, mama,
Shinin' through the trees?
Don't the brakeman look good, mama,
Flagging down the "Double E"?
The train song is one of America’s most important musical genres. It's also one of the most enduring. Over the last 150 years, the train song has formed the bedrock of the American music experience. And of all the enduring American troubadours, few are as partial to a good train song as Bob Dylan.
Whether it’s the tale of a wayward woman forced to live outside the law by jumping a railroad gate to escape a persistent suitor (“Absolutely Sweet Marie”); a luckless sot who casts his last fated lot by flagging down the ‘Double E’ ("It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”); a stranger bound to ramble through the ice, sleet and rain to get back to God’s golden shore (“Man of Constant Sorrow”); or the slow distant rumblings the coming of the Lord (“Slow Train Coming”)— trains are an integral part of the Dylan landscape.
The word ‘train’ appears in no fewer than 39 Dylan songs. The word, ‘railroad’, in another half dozen. And when Bob paid homage to Johnny Cash (a one-time mentor and fellow train aficionado) on the 2002 tribute album, Kindred Spirits, the song Dylan chose to serenade the country music legend was none other than “Train of Love.”
Warren Buffett, it seems, also has a thing for trains. So much so that last week the celebrated financier paid close to $35 billion to acquire the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the nation’s second largest railroad.
And what exactly you may ask is the correlation between the famed ‘Oracle of Omaha’ and the traveling minstrel from Minnesota? In a word: America.
Bob Dylan’s songs have always been about the American experience. Sometimes that portrayal has been dark, sometimes it’s highlighted our better angels. But it’s always been honest. And for Bob, nothing is more honest and uniquely American than riding the rails. There’s just something about trains that captivates him.
Maybe it’s the way the pipes and pistons glisten in the evening sun, their slow, methodical churning filling you with the promise of a new beginning. Maybe it’s the smell from the burning coal as it fills the nostrils of the passer-byers after rising up through the smokestack and out into the night. Or maybe it’s sound of the conductor’s whistle as it splits the night in two.
As for the people who ride those trains, Dylan has nothing but admiration for them. Clearly, he revels their sense of adventure; embraces their sense of longing; covets the freedom they effortlessly embody.
One gets a sense Warren Buffett probably feels the same way.
After news broke of Buffett’s recent purchase, he jokingly replied: “This is all happening because my father didn't buy me a train set as a kid." Of course, Buffett’s billion-dollar investment in the Northern Burlington Railroad was more than a sentimental journey back to his childhood.
Buffett may have been playing the field when he stepped up to the table and rolled a pair of ‘box cars’ last week. But if history is any indication, don’t count on him crapping out any time soon.
“It's an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States,” he said last Tuesday when asked about the investment, the biggest ever for his Berkshire Hathaway investment company, “I love these bets.”
The Administration probably loves the wager, too. After all, what president wouldn’t like a $35 billion cash-infused validation of their economic policy, especially a policy as contentious as the recent Obama-Pelosi-Reid $787 billion dollar stimulus package?
Buffett puts on no airs about his admiration of Barack Obama. But by purchasing the Burlington Northern, Buffett laid his cards on the table for all to see. And you don’t need a Tarot reader to decipher the Oracle of Omaha’s latest pronouncement: America is back on track.
The logic behind the purchase is, like so many of Buffett’s investment decisions, strikingly simple. As U.S. commerce recovers, so too will demand to move goods around the country. And the largest mover of refrigerators, clothing and TVs? Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
And make no question, Buffet’s affirmation in America’s future couldn't have come a better time. Abroad, we are on the verge of committing as many as 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan. At home, we find ourselves still picking through the economic debris brought on by the worst financial shit storm to hit this nation in the last 60 years. Frankly, it’s all just about enough to make you want to pack up our knapsacks and ride that nonstop mailtrain all the way down to Acapulco. Just don't count on Buffett's recently acquired railroad to take you there.
Because while the Burlington Northern may haul corn, coal and a host of commercial goods, one thing it doesn’t haul is passengers. So if you still feel compelled to hop a train bound for nowhere and leave your worries behind, perhaps a Bob Dylan song might just be the ticket.
Lord knows, you've got plenty to choose from…
Well, I wanna be your lover, baby,
I don't wanna be your boss.
Don't say I never warned you
When your train gets lost.