According to Ackland’s class-study webpage on Slow Down Freight Train Rose Piper was inspired by a song called “Freight Train Blues,” a lamenting blues tune from the 1920s. The webpage also gives much historical background to the painting about a phenomenon in American history that I was not aware of known as The Great Migration.
The curving lines of the figure contrast against the very linear background to add to the fluidity of motion that the figure seems to be experiencing and allows the motion to be expressed in stark contrast to the swift-moving train that he is riding. By making the only curved lines in the entire piece form the figure it shows him as an outsider and a person who belongs somewhere else instead of riding far away from his loved ones. The artist of the piece describes the man as “the abstraction of the human figure...aris[ing] out of a single moment of heightened expression. The attenuated form suggests the essence of longing." By making the figure red against a background comprised of entirely green shades and by making every line that the figure consists of curved in contrast with the straight lines of the scene that he is sitting in makes him stick out from the painting entirely. The emotion conveyed by his crying mouth suggests that he is yelling, perhaps calling in despair for the loved ones that he has left behind.
The Great Migration of the 1920s was when many African-American males from the Southern states began to move North to work in the Chicago meat market or the Detroit automobile industry. The main catch was that they couldn’t bring their loved ones and often left behind their mothers, wives, children, and girlfriends. “Freight Train Blues,” the song which inspired Rose Piper to paint Slow Down Freight Train has a chugging, lamenting back music which makes the song drag along full of the emotion of loss. Piper uses the colors and lines to draw the eye to the man’s sorrowful face which lacks any real features except his wide crying mouth. This lack of facial features represents how, by moving up north away from his family, he is growing further away from his roots and essentially losing his identity. Piper only leaves him enough of himself to express his anguish at leaving his homeland. The expression on his face, and his exaggerated posture suggest that his soul is longing for home, his body is pointing in the direction that the train is moving away from and the shout leaving his throat seems like it is trying to reach back to the family that he left people.
Rose Piper says that the name of the painting Slow Down Freight Train is a woman telling the train to slow down so that she can catch it and go along with her man. This is an obvious reference to the song “Freight Train Blues” which is the lament of a woman whose man has gone up north to work in these brutal industries. The name of the painting as well as the song that inspired it adds an extra dimension to the work as if the lamenting figure is hearing the call of his woman back home. The interesting thing about this added dimension of the painting is that the focus and subject matter of the work itself is entirely masculine yet the inspiration, title, and even the artist are all feminine. This separation of the sexes in reality yet mixture in theory is also representative of a human soul and the longing that the subject himself and the speaker of the title have for one another.
The monotony and strangeness of the world that the figure is traveling through is represented in the very linear and parallel lines of the background. The lines of the horizon, the boards of the train, and the power lines off in the distance are all so stark and in such contrast with the fluid soulful figure that it alienates him. He appears to be in a world that he entirely does not belong to as if the further from his home that he goes the more the world around him changes into a frightening and very bleak, linear place to live. The soulful, curvy figure of the man seems as if he is suffering to death simply because his surroundings are absolutely opposite of his being.
The lines coloring and focus of the painting along with the title and cultural context all combine to make Slow Down Freight Train a very sorrowful and emotion-filled painting. The features (or lack thereof) of the figure and the contrasting colors make him even more of an outsider in the world that he is traveling to and suggest that he has left his soul behind him with his family and loved ones.