Boom-Chicka-Boom That Train, Man
“I hear the train a-coming, it’s rolling around the bend”
A couple of months ago I was thinking about a great series of children’s illustrated books I used to own when I was young and they sprang to mind again when thinking about ideas for this edition of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph. They were written in the late 1950’s- early 1960’s by Elizabeth Cameron, illustrated by George J. Zaffo and published by Grosset & Dunlap. They were about different forms of transportation, so there was The Big Book Of Ships and Boats, of Real Trucks, of Real Fire Engines and of Real Trains, and I proudly owned all of them. What made them so memorable were the illustrations, which showed them in action getting all dirty and used as they were meant to be, rather than as shiny museum pieces. They were also incredibly detailed and had no doubt been researched thoroughly. In terms of subject matter, what more could a young boy want to read about than trains and trucks and ships. I hesitate to say I favored one over the others, but for some reason the one about trains really stuck with me the most over the years because, let’s face it, at that age most boys still had dreams of being a train conductor, and I suppose I was no exception
It was also probably because it covered everything from noisy steam locomotives on to diesel and electric, and all the cars you might see on either a freight or a passenger train in between. At the bottom of each set of pages there was a small gray sketch of the line of a train from left to right and whatever car was featured on that particular page was highlighted in black. There were also some great illustrations of long winding trains through the mountains that from an artistic standpoint were very well executed. These were not illustrations that were made to look cute but instead almost bordered on the technical. That I can still picture them in my mind after all these years speaks to how well done they were in fact.
“Well listen to the jingle, hear the rumble and the roar,
As she glides along the woodlands, through the hills and by the shore”
I think another reason why The Big Book Of Real Trains was so memorable is because when I was growing up, I could still see most of the types of trains and train cars featured in the book (with the exception of steam locomotives), as well as the legacy of a once booming industry. In all directions outside of New York City there was then as now passenger trains bringing suburbanites back and forth from the city each day to work. Of course along with the commuter trains we also have the subway trains in the city as well. But when I was young, you could still see freight trains once or twice a day coming through the town, often quite long ones at that. You might be in the car being shuttled somewhere after school when those gates at the intersection would come down and there was nothing for it but to sit it out and wait. You would know how long that wait might be by the number of locomotives at the front. If it was only one, you knew it was going to be a short wait. But if it was two or three, you knew it would be a good while before you saw that Caboose come snaking past and the gates went back up. Kids would drive their parents crazy by counting out how many cars went past while the parents no doubt wondered why wherever they had to be was on the OTHER side of the tracks. The thing I remember being fascinated by, and because most of the companies still existed then, was the mix of names of the different train haulers you might see going past. The locomotive might say New York Central, but the boxcars going past might say Burlington Northern, Erie, Norfolk & Western, or B&O among others.
Years later when I heard about that uniquely British pursuit known as trainspotting I thought it an odd contrast how for them it seemed to be a fascination about the engines themselves, particularly the steam engines since they often had unique names or designations. They spent hours writing them down in their little books with great interest as if it were the rarest bird in the world. I could not imagine anyone obsessing about things like gradients and gauge, timing or signaling. For me though it was about seeing those different names from all over the U.S. and all the different types of cars there were. You had the boxcars of course, then you had the liquid storage cars with all sorts of valves and dials all over them. Often those cars were destined for a plant just up the road from my house growing up, where the tracks met a junction from the main line and the cars were rolled directly into the plant. There were the hoppers filled with materials from quarries. Then you had the flatbeds which either had heavy industrial equipment on them, or what I recall more of were those that were hauling tractor trailers on them, which was called piggyback. Every few towns near where I grew up there would be a local depot where some of those trailers would be unloaded and brought to local merchants.
“Train, train, train, you’re fading from the scene,
But you’ve had your days of glory”
All of that seemed to dry up sometime in the 1980’s however when trucking took over and the trains that went by in town became less frequent, had fewer cars and were now derelict with graffiti. They also never seemed to be actually carrying anything because often the cargo doors would be wide open. You seldom ever saw trains with more than one locomotive anymore and there was no more caboose at the rear. The last boxcar would limp slowly past and the trains seemed sadly incomplete without one. Those great company names disappeared too, replaced instead by the ubiquitous ‘Conrail’ which was a government reorganization of some of the old lines here in the northeastern part of the U.S. In other parts of the country I know this was not necessarily the case, and there were still trains hauling loads, but for me trains stopped having any sort of appeal past that point once they no longer were around as much in my daily life. In addition, passenger trains just did not have the same sort of lure that the freight trains did. For me trains were simply an occasional mode of transportation and nothing more. There was nothing glamorous or evocative about taking a train from say New York to Philadelphia. Even getting around mostly by train on a visit to Britain in 1990 did nothing for me. Sure the scenery was nice at times, particularly on the West Highland line in Scotland, but it did not change my attitude and so eventually those Big Books met the same fate the trains did for me.
“Train of love’s a-comin’, big black wheels are hummin”
Gradually that started changing a few years ago however, when I started watching the travel shows of writer, actor, comedian and self-confessed train spotter Michael Palin. Though I will never share his total obsession about trains, I slowly began appreciating them more through his eyes. One thing he said in one of his documentaries struck me, and it has remained with me since. He described the start of a train journey as one of the great sensations, where the route is already plotted out by way of the tracks and every direction is forward. That concept struck a nerve and I began thinking about trains in a more meaningful context again. I began to read a few books about trains, particularly about the development and history of them. Around that same time my musical tastes were expanding and I became aware of the large body of songs that exist in American culture about trains. A thought occurred to me as I started preparing this blog that though the British may be obsessed with actual trains, as Americans I think we are more in tune with railroad infrastructure. Bridges, tunnels, and rail yards abound across the country, be they active or abandoned. Not to mention railroad history such as the great joining of the transcontinental railroad by the Union and Central Pacific lines in 1869. These seem to be what the average person knows about trains in the U.S. and not that the engine that just came by was #4752A. I also think Americans have written a lot more songs about trains than anyone else.
I think when one thinks about singers and trains in America the first name that springs to mind is probably Woody Guthrie. After all he hopped those boxcars and travelled the land writing those great songs about life in the U.S. Of course a quick glance at my Ipod revealed lots of songs by other artists that either use trains as a metaphor, or as subject matter. As a matter of fact, I think it seems an assurance that any artist that has been around for a number of years must have at least one song about them. But there is one singer whose love for trains looms even larger than Woody Guthrie, and who actually wrote dozens of songs about trains, and he is actually the subject for this installment.
“I got livestock, I got livestock
I got cows, I got pigs,
I got sheep, I got mules
I got all livestock”
In case you haven’t figured it out by now from the song quotes that artist is Johnny Cash. In one of the previous installments I mentioned how when I was growing up the sound of Johnny Cash coming from Dad’s stereo made me run for the hills. But when that first Rick Rubin produced ‘American Recordings’ was released I finally started getting his appeal and realized the error of my ways. I picked up some greatest hits albums, and of course the Folsom Prison and San Quentin recordings, along with the rest of the American Recordings series. Though I knew he had a vast, vast catalog beyond that, I really did not know where, or how to start with his music beyond the ones I already had. But for Christmas of 2013 my wife wisely bought me a copy of Robert Hilburn’s recent biography Johnny Cash-The Life. It helped me fill in the gaps of his story that I was unfamiliar with, helped me understand the man (flawed, as we all are) more, but above all, gave me insight into his music that was lacking beyond a knowledge of the hits or movie portrayals. I tore through the book, and one thing I remember saying to my wife after was that I desired for him to be the next artist I seriously “collected.” I am in general a completest when it comes to music and books, and strive to have every album, and everything an artist has ever released. All of the artists I have featured in previous installments of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph fall into this category. If not everything, then it is as close as I can get. Somehow I had missed out on Columbia releasing a box set of everything Johnny had recorded for the label, spanning over 30 years.
So a few months back I plunked down the money for that 63 disc set of the Columbia Recordings. Everything was there-the studio albums, live albums from Madison Square Garden, London, Sweden, Prague, along with the mono recordings of Folsom and San Quentin. Then there were the Gospel albums, Christmas albums, the singles, and the collaborations from The Highwaymen to The Carter Family. All there in one glorious package, with the CD sleeves a faithful recreation of the original vinyl ones. I knew it would surely show up as a blog at some point, but there was so much music to digest I did not think it would happen so quickly. An offhand comment by someone on the Facebook page for this blog (you can find it here-http://www.facebook.com/SoundtrackPhoto) gave me a serious thought once I dug in to the set more.
Album after album I began to realize that there was very nearly a song about a train. If it was not outright about a train, such as Hey, Hey Train it used train imagery or mentioned them, most famously in the opening line of Folsom Prison Blues. I knew then that I had both a subject matter and an artist to deal with. I probably do not need much back story on Johnny Cash here. Everyone knows who he is, everyone has heard at least some of his music. Everyone has their own favorites. Johnny Cash is one of those boundary breakers. Sure the country music fans love him, sure the fans of Sun Records love him as they do Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. But with the material on the American Recordings he went even beyond that. Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails covers coupled with the agonizing beauty of Hurt, with its powerful video to go along with it brought Johnny Cash into another stratosphere. However there was a real dilemma. With such a massive amount of songs in the entire Johnny Cash catalog, or for that matter such a massive amount of songs about trains in the entire Johnny Cash catalog which song could I possibly choose? Below are just some of the ones that are overtly about trains in some manner of speaking either written by or covered by Johnny over the years. I am sure I have probably even missed some-
Georgia On A Fast Train
On The Evening Train
Wreck Of The Old 97
Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer
Come Along & Ride This Train
Daughter Of A Railroad Man
Desperados Waiting For A Train
(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle
Let The Train Blow The Whistle
Waiting For A Southern Train
Let The Train Blow The Whistle
Orange Blossom Special
Hey Hey Train
I’ve Got A Thing About Trains
The City Of New Orleans
Ridin’ On The Cotton Belt
The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Rock Island Line
Train Of Love
Like The 309
Big Train (From Memphis)
Down There By The Train
Waiting For A Train
Not to mention Johnny’s epic 1960 concept album, Ride This Train, in which he took a fictional journey across America with linking word passages spoken over the sound of a steam train chugging along. He also did a documentary-Ridin’ The Rails with Johnny Cash in 1974. From freight trains to passenger trains it is safe to say that Johnny Cash had a solid affection for trains. None of that helped me narrow down the choices, so I decided I had to go back to read more about how the love for trains first started for him and found that it went right back to his early childhood.
“Riding On The Cotton Belt, Cleveland County’s where I long to be.
I got on at Brinkley and every mile I make is a memory.
This boxcar’s cold and windy and the dust goes around in circles in the air.
But my hard times are behind me and I’m returnin’ home so I don’t care.”
As Robert Hilburn writes in Johnny Cash-The Life, trains were part of Johnny’s early life and he often saw his Dad looking for work by hopping the boxcars near Dyess, Arkansas where he grew up. Johnny grew up in an era when trains were crucial both for commerce and transportation so his experience was very different from my own. In a way as I listened to album after album I began feeling that the songs Johnny Cash performed about trains were on a parallel with the industry itself. Almost as if he did his own lifetime history of trains through song over the course of his career. First there were the early days of trains and the men who worked on them with songs like Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer. Next came the increasing importance in American culture with songs that people grew up with and celebrated trains in songs like Wabash Cannonball. Then through to the bustling pre and postwar days of Johnny’s youth on those early singles for Sun Records with Rock Island Line and Hey Porter, both of which reflect a realistic experience with trains that resonated with most Americans. The freight train clickety-clacking and hauling its illegal load in Rock Island Line coupled with a passenger who can’t stand the scenery anymore and just wants to be home (a song Johnny wrote while in the Air Force in Germany) in Hey Porter. Next he sang about the gradual decline of trains in America with songs like The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore and I’ve Got A Thing About Trains. Finally and perhaps most poignantly in the second to last song he ever recorded, Like The 309, he sang about getting ready for death and the afterlife and the “train” that would carry him there-
“I hear the sound of a railroad train
The whistle blows and I’m gone again
It will take me higher than a Georgia pine
Stand back children, it’s a 309
Put me in my box on the 309″
Johnny Cash pretty much covered it all regarding trains, whether he meant to or not. As I continue the exploration of his music my admiration for the man continues to grow. To use a couple of cliches, he wore his heart on his sleeve and what you saw was what you really got. Sure, with all those albums there were some definite mistakes, but I think as an artist you have to ascend and descend the ladder of success several times especially over such a long career. I do not think you can maintain the level of success without stumbling a few times. I think that makes you stronger and more resilient. The other thought that comes to mind in this, my own personal ‘Year Of Johnny Cash’ is that he was a true American artist, and was driven to explore all aspects of this country. Farmers and truckers, shrimp boat captains and a filling station owner, prisoners and ministers. Long before there were Ken Burns documentaries about the American experience, our history and society there was Johnny Cash singing about it.
By now you may have noticed that for a blog whose subject matter is trains, there are not many of them in these photographs. Though I would love to have beautiful photos to show like in that old Big Book Of Trains weaving their way through the mountains, or fully loaded freight cars propelled by multiple engines and those great old railroad company names emblazoned on the sides with a caboose always on the end it is sadly hard to find around here these days. Or of a passenger train leaving a glorious station somewhere with a spacious platform and loved ones waving goodbye like a scene out of an old black and white film. Though there are signs of some semblance of a railroad resurgence in the U.S. it is a slow process. Some of the photographs used in this installment were taken in a train yard next to where I work, in the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Efforts are being made to revitalize this yard and use it to roll freight directly on to barges. Though I can walk by on a daily basis and see trains being moved around, there seems little energy or excitement to it. I think about what the train yards must have looked like in Johnny Cash’s day by contrast. In assembling the fragments of ideas together for this blog I started to realize that what I myself was writing and taking photos of was less about trains themselves but rather a longing to see railroads return to prominence once again. In my lifetime I have seen the waning days of commercial trains and the struggles of a national passenger service much like Johnny Cash did. With that decay comes a lot of opportunities for a photographer with the remains of old rail bridges,overgrown tracks or preserved train engines in museums. I wish that were not so however so I certainly hope this push back into revitalizing trains in this country takes off in a meaningful way. Whatever happens, I know one thing. When I look back years from now at my own photos that I have taken over the years of anything associated with trains or railroads the soundtrack to them will always be by Johnny Cash. Which one you ask? Well the title of this blog is perhaps the biggest clue. A song with that classic Boom-Chicka-Boom sound that Johnny together with Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins created, reminiscent of a train chugging down the line was required. Still I could not narrow it down to one song but decided that it was a tie, so the Soundtracks To The Photograph for this installment are Hey, Porter and Rock Island Line. Next time you hear a train, put a little boom-chicka-boom on it and I am sure you will hear the same thing. Johnny would have appreciated that I think.
Folsom Prison Blues-Written by Johnny Cash
The Wabash Cannonball-Written by A.P. Carter
I’ve Got A Thing About Trains-Written by Jack Clement
Train Of Love-Written by Johnny Cash
Rock Island Line-Arranged by Johnny Cash
Ridin’ On The Cotton Belt-Written by Johnny Cash
Like The 309-Written by Johnny Cash
Hey, Porter-Written by Johnny Cash
All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.