Friday, November 14, 2014

Hop a train with Johnny Cash


Published Jan. 13, 2012
Johnny Cash mounts the steps of a steam locomotive in the beginning of the documentary “Ridin’ the Rails,” pulls a blast on the whistle cord, looks out the window as the piston rods begin turning the huge driver wheels, and pulls the whistle a few more times as the locomotive gains speed. I’m jealous — I wish I could ride in a steam cab. Such is the benefit of fame.
Cash starred in the documentary history of U.S. railroads, created, written and produced by Nicholas Webster and Dyann Rivkin and airing in 1974 on primetime television, mingling mysteriously as an unseen participant with historical characters in reenactments of famous moments in railroad history, telling stories of railroads, and singing songs about the good and the bad moments of railroading, opening with the title song.

“Ridin’ the rails, ridin’ the rails / I see wheels of steel comin’ through / Pulling cars for passengers like you / If you want to take a trip the fare is free / Just get on board and ride the rails with me. / Ridin’ the rails, ridin’ the rails. ...”
Reenactments include the famous race between a horse and the locomotive Tom Thumb in Baltimore, the maiden run of the Best Friend of Charleston, gandy dancers laying rails, the Great Locomotive Chase of the Civil War, the Golden Spike Ceremony of May 10, 1869, that completed the first transcontinental railroad, and John Henry’s contest with the steam drill. Perhaps the most moving scene is when Johnny climbs aboard a boxcar during the Great Depression, joining men whose faces are lined with deep despair, and sings “Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy.”
“This boxcar’s been my home since San Antone / Cause this ankle of mine I turned while hoppin’ on / Shoots pain that feeds my dreams with luxuries / I see crystal chandeliers and burgundy / I can feel my mother’s heartbeat from the track / It’s the rhythm of a boy that won’t be back / Lord knows where my mind is takin’ me / I see crystal chandeliers and burgundy / If that conductor only knew all the trouble I’ve been through / Just to be here on this train once again / The freedom of a hobo ain’t so bad / You can dream of all the wealth you might’ve had / I guess livin’ on this train is gettin’ to me / I see crystal chandeliers and burgundy / If that conductor only knew all the trouble I’ve been through / Just to be here on this train once again / If there’s nothing in this world I’ve gotta do / But to ride these rails of steel my whole life through / Then take away these visions that I see / Of crystal chandeliers and burgundy.”
The show closes showing Americans’ turning away from the railroads and embracing the jet age, the camera surveying scenes of dilapidated passenger stations — weathered siding, darkened windows, weeds growing all around buildings and in roadbeds. Johnny expresses hope for the future of railroads, singing “City of New Orleans,” but in 2012 railroad stations are still “awful lonesome.”
“Ridin’ the Rails” is an excellent blend of railroad history and music, but don’t confuse it with “Riding the Rails,” a superb documentary about teen hobos in the Depression. Once you watch it, you may want to hop a boxcar, but railroad officials frown on such behavior — unless, of course, you’re Johnny Cash.

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