In defense of an award-winning song: “On The Atchison Topeka And Santa Fe.”


Over at Five Thirty Eight on the occasion of the Academy Awards, writer Walt Hickey had not-so-flattering things to say about the “worst best original songs in Oscar history,” among which was “On The Atchison Topeka And Santa Fe.”

A version is included above for your listening pleasure.

Vocal by The Sentimentalists (later to be known as The Clark Sisters) on Tommy Dorsey’s version of the popular Oscar-winning tune from “The Harvey Girls.” Four different recordings of the Johnny Mercer-Harry Warren song reached the national top-ten single sales chart: Judy Garland (who sang it in the movie), Dorsey, Bing, and, with the #1 chart-topping version, Mercer himself.

CD audio, originally issued on 78rpm: Victor 20-1682 – On The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (Mercer-Warren) by Tommy Dorsey & his Orchestra, vocal by The Sentimentalists, recorded May 26, 1945

Courtesy of MusicProf78 on Facebook

I haven’t watched an Academy Awards telecast since John Wayne’s final appearance in 1979, and in truth, drinking Miller Lite, touring Ken Ham’s ark or reading the “Collected Works of Jeff Gahan” (written by Mike Hall) sound like way more fun than sitting through the Oscars.

But I’d like to defend the virtue of “On The Atchison Topeka And Santa Fe,” which to my ears is far superior to any acclaimed Disney soundtrack excerpt of the last 30 years. This song is weirdly symbolic to me, even if it was recorded 15 years before I was born.

In short, there is an exuberance to music like this from the period when WWII was drawing to a close. Granted, the end was not yet nigh; Hitler was gone, but the war in the Pacific had yet to conclude. Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not become household names until August.

And yet, at the time, America surely seemed to be atop the heap, although if we go deeper, it can be seen that this dawning age of well-ordered preeminence was remarkably brief, and a mere historical blip. The situation changed, and quickly.

In the mid- to late-1960s, only 20-something years after Dorsey’s version of “On The Atchison Topeka And Santa Fe” was recorded, I was listening to it in company with the other songs on my father’s LP collections of the Swing Era. We always listened to them on Sunday mornings over a big breakfast. To my dad, this was church.

For better or worse, he was populist to the core and at the time, much troubled by the Vietnam War, hippies and societal dislocation; in truth, the wealthy fat cats weren’t giving the little guy a fair shake, but hadn’t he served three years in the Marine Corps for just a little bit of fairness?

I don’t think my father ever put all these pieces together. He had strong feelings about injustice, but lacked a consistent framework to express them. It doesn’t really matter. The point I’m trying to make is that only two decades after the war, songs like “On The Atchison Topeka And Santa Fe” already had become mile markers for him. When he heard them, all those great things once again were possible.

Circa 1987, Gore Vidal spoke briefly and eloquently about the reality of the period.

The last best hope of earth, two trillion dollars in debt, is spinning out of control, and all we can do is stare at a flickering cathode-ray tube as Ollie “answers” questions on TV while the press, resolutely irrelevant as ever, asks politicians if they have committed adultery. From V-J Day 1945 to this has been, my fellow countrymen, a perfect nightmare.

It’s 2018, and Dorsey’s recording of “On The Atchison Topeka And Santa Fe” will be 73 in May. The problem isn’t so much that “they don’t make ’em like this any more,” although this is certifiably true.

To me, the real problem is the likelihood of someone reading about the song, and being unable to imagine what a passenger train is, having never experienced one. No wonder we’ve gone to hell in a hand basket.