All Aboard the Blue Train: Johnny Cash and the Train Song

As regular readers know I've become a bit of a Johnny Cash nut. I listen to Cash all the time so as my sons ride in the car with me they hear a lot of Johnny Cash playing.

My son Aidan sums up Johnny Cash like this. Aidan says, "Johnny Cash sings about trains, prison, murder and Jesus."

That's just about a perfect description of Johnny Cash.

In my series about the theology of Johnny Cash (see the sidebar on the blog homepage) I wrote about the prison, murder and Jesus parts. But nothing about the trains.

Johnny Cash's first recording with Sun Records wasn't "I Walk the Line" or "Folsom Prison Blues." The first song Cash wrote and recorded with Sun was a song about trains.

That song was "Hey Porter." "Hey Porter" needed a compliment song to make a record. Cash went off and wrote "Cry, Cry, Cry." "Cry, Cry, Cry" became the A-Side of Cash's first record and was his first hit. "Hey Porter" was the B-Side and also got a lot of air play.

"Hey Porter" is one of the few (and it might be the only) happy train songs recorded by Cash. Inspired by Cash's feelings returning home after his tour overseas in the air force, "Hey Porter" shares the excitement of a man riding a train back home to loved ones in the South. The last verse of the song:
Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please open up the door.
When they stop the train I'm gonna get off first
Cause I can't wait no more.
Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot,
and I didn't mind the fare.
I'm gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.
Again, "Hey Porter" is a happy train song. The train is bringing a son, a lover, a brother and a friend back home. This happy theme is an exception in Cash's train song discography. For the most part when Cash sings about trains the theme is loss, sadness and regret. The train is passing the singer by taking other people to happy places. That's the image from "Folsom Prison Blues." From the first, second and third verses:
I hear the train a comin'
It's rolling round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on.
But that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.

I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
But those people keep a movin'
And that's what tortures me.
Another sad train theme in Johnny Cash's songs are trains taking lovers away or not bringing them back home. A nice example are the lyrics of "Train of Love." From the first two verses:
Train of love's a-comin', big black wheels a-hummin'
People waitin' at the station, happy hearts are drummin'
Trainman tell me maybe, ain't you got my baby
Every so often everybody's baby gets the urge to roam
But everybody's baby but mine's comin' home.

Now stop your whistle blowin', 'cause I got ways of knowin'
Your bringin' other people's lovers, but my own keeps goin'
Train of love's deceivin', when she's not gone she's leavin'
Every so often everybody's baby gets the urge to roam
But everybody's baby but mine's comin' home.
Sometimes a train isn't in the song but railroad tracks are mentioned to similar effect. The railroad tracks are leading off to a happy place but we can't get on the train to follow them. We see the path leading home but we are unable to follow it. From "Give My Love to Rose":
I found him by the railroad track this morning
I could see that he was nearly dead
I knelt down beside him and I listened
Just to hear the words the dying fellow said.
He said they let me out of prison down in Frisco
For ten long years I've paid for what I've done
I was trying to get back to Louisiana
To see my Rose and get to know my son.

Give my love to Rose please won't you mister
Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes
Tell my boy his daddy's so proud of him
And don't forget to give my love to Rose.
In short, beyond the debut of the happy "Hey Porter" the train songs of Johnny Cash tend to be sad and melancholy songs. Happiness is on the train and that train is leaving us or passing us by. We're left standing by the railroad tracks listening to the whistle in the distance.

(By the way, if you'd like to explore many of the early train songs of Johnny Cash check out the "All Aboard the Blue Train" compilation album put out by Sun Records in 1962. It's one of my favorite Johnny Cash albums. I have it on vinyl and play this record in my office more than any other.

Some interesting backstory behind this and other compilation albums put out by Sun Records.

Cash left Sun for Columbia in 1958. But Sun owned all Cash's early material. Consequently, while Cash was recording new albums with Columbia Sun kept releasing "greatest hits" compilation albums alongside Cash's newer material, much to the chagrin of both Cash and Columbia. "All Aboard the Blue Train" is one of those Sun compilation albums.)

So the train song for Johnny Cash is a sad song. The train whistle is a sound of lament, loss and regret for the sinner sitting in prison for the poor man dying by the railroad track and for the lovers who are saying good-bye forever.

And yet, at the end of Cash's career a note of redemption is sounded. On his 1994 American Recordings album, the first he did with Rick Rubin, Cash recorded the song "Down There By the Train," a song written for Cash by Tom Waits. (Waits also recorded his own version of the song twelve years later on his three-disc Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.)
If you've lost all your hope, if you've lost all your faith
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe
And all the shamefuls and all of the whores
And even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord

Meet me down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there by the train
Down there where the train goes slow
I think it's theologically fitting that one of the last train songs recorded by Cash is "Down There By the Train." For me, the song reaches back to the start of Cash's career as the answer to the sinner's lament sounded in "Folsom Prison Blues." It is a song that brings the hope of reunion in "Hey Porter" to the man dying by the railroad tracks in "Give My Love to Rose."

Yes, the train songs of Johnny Cash are laments, filled with loss and regret. But there is a place where the "train goes slow," slow enough for all of us in our sin and sadness to hop aboard and find our way back home.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply