The great American singer Johnny Cash was a fan of trains. Born in 1932, he came of age in the immediate post-World War II years as diesel replaced steam locomotives but the automobile and aviation had yet to completely overshadow train travel. Fans of Cash’s music also know that his original “Tennessee Two” backing band had a distinctive train-like “boom-chick-a-boom” sound. Cash admitted a love affair with the train that stretched back to his youth. In 1974, Johnny Cash starred in Johnny Cash: Ridin’ the Rails (The Great American Train Story), a film that was released as a TV special. The movie sees Cash providing a history of American railroads thru narration and historical reenactment of such events as the driving of the last spike to complete the first transcontinental railroad. The various scenes are complemented at various points with Cash’s singing. Among the railroad tunes sung, in whole or part, are “Ridin’ the Rails”, “John Henry”, and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”.

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At the time of the film’s release, Johnny Cash saw the effects of a move away from passenger train travel – emptier passenger cars and desolate stations. In the 1970s, as private companies folded their passenger service it would have been hard not to be pessimistic about the future of passenger rail. However, one important and positive event also happened in the 1970s – Amtrak came into being on May 1, 1971 to provide a national train service when the private corporations wouldn’t. Amtrak continues to post record passenger numbers – over 30 million in 2012-2013 – and as the cost of an automobile rises, gridlock increases and many North Americans wish to travel in a more environmentally-friendly and relaxed (and often faster!) way, the train is returning. Amtrak has had ridership records in ten of its last eleven years.

One of the other songs that Cash (who passed away in 2003) sang in the film was “The City of New Orleans”. That song is about the iconic Illinois Central train whose name is carried on by Amtrak with its Chicago to New Orleans run. Johnny Cash brings the song to life in this film clip:

In a recent post, highlighted restored Pullman cars that are hooked up to a Amtrak trains for routes that include the iconic Chicago to New Orleans trip. 

Johnny Cash: Ridin’ the Rails (The Great American Train Story) (1974) is still available via various online retailers and runs a total of 52 minutes.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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