President Richard M. Nixon resigned in 1974. The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War ended the same year. Many Americans felt disillusioned with their government and with each other. Citizens were deeply polarized: young vs. old, black vs. white, men vs. women, conservatives vs. liberals, ad infinitum. With the present so glum and the future so uncertain, the nation looked to the past for its pride and inspiration. This was the scenario in which the TV special Johnny Cash: Ridin’ the Rails (The Great American Train Story) emerged. Although it’s not stated in the press materials, the program appears to have been funded by Amtrak, as the show is one long commercial for the joys of train travel. No matter. Cash’s love for trains had been well documented in song by 1974. In fact, one of the main reasons Cash left Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, the original label that signed him and helped make him a star, was because Phillips wouldn’t let him make the concept album Ridin’ This Train (196?). Cash went on to record more train songs than any other popular musician in history—even more than the legendary father of country music, “The Singing Brakeman”, (as in a railroad brakeman) Jimmy Rodgers.
Ridin’ the Rails chronologically depicts the history of the American railroad through vignettes of important past events that date back to the 18th century. Cash narrates the dramatic re-enactments dressed in various period costumes. He looks good dressed up in fancy duds. Cash smiles and joshes a lot, and his deep voice lends a gravitas to the scenarios. The program aims to be entertaining as well as educational.
Cash presents America’s expansive movement as the inevitable progress of human history. The program features scenarios that involve early Southern inventors and entrepreneurs, the Northern reliance on industrial transportation, and the railroad’s function in populating the West. The show portrays the role of Irish and Chinese immigrants and freed blacks in laying down tracks, the emergence of a new kind of outlaw-the train robber—and an even more villainous creature—the robber baron, as well as the poor and hobos who road the rails. Cash discusses the importance of the railroad in times of war, including the American Civil War, World War I, and what the script considers the railroad’s greatest heyday, World War II. But as diesels replaced the steam locomotive, cars and airplanes replaced passenger trains; trains became a less important feature of American life. The program ends with a whimper as Cash tries to put a positive spin on modern train riding as a romantic reminder of the glorious past.
The centrepiece of Ridin’ the Rails, and perhaps the central event in America’s railroad history, depicts the pounding of the golden spike ceremony that celebrated the completion of the intercontinental railway. People and goods could now travel from sea to shining sea. Cash proudly narrates the circumstances and makes fun of the pomp. The first man to try to drive the spike in was a businessman who obviously never engaged in physical labor. He misses clumsily. Next comes the banker who put up the money. He too stumbles, much to the crowd’s delight. Finally a local workman is enlisted to drive down the spike, which he successfully does and receives much applause of the audience. Then Cash delivers the kicker. Of course the spike had to be dug up immediately or someone in the crowd would steal it.
While Cash does note the hurt the railroad caused to local carriage drivers and businesses, he glosses over the harm as the cost of the progress. He describes the harsh lives of the workers, but this champion of Native American rights and environmental issues never once mentions the role of the railroad in displacing Indians from their homelands and the despoilment of the ecology caused by the coal powered engines and the destruction of the landscape. This is leftist history lite and probably not all that different from many schoolbooks from the mid-‘70s.
But of course the best reason to see Ridin’ the Rails is to watch and hear Cash perform his music. He does a great rendition of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that really brings out the centrality of the train economy and the South during the Civil War: the main character worked on the train until the North tore up the tracks. Cash performs a solid version of “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer”, a song he sometimes has taken to tall tale extremes on previous recordings, while actors portraying the principles re-enact the story. Other highlights include “City of New Orleans” (Steve Goodman had originally wrote the song for Cash), the wistful look at ladies in their finery aboard a luxury car, “Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy”, and the Appalachian lament, “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”.
The DVD does include a few outtakes and has been re-mastered in 5.1 Surround Sound. This marks the first time the public will be able to watch the 52-minute feature since it’s original airing. Apparently the program had been sitting on the garage shelf of its now 93-year-old director, Nicholas Webster. While the program may not be solid history, Cash makes this semi-mythical version of America’s railroad history as enjoyable as fun as a ride on an old steam locomotive.