Recommended CDs

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Classic Cash: Ride This Train

Unlike the previous blogs in this series, this one has been almost entirely rewritten since it first appeared on a messageboard three years ago.

Johnny Cash is best known to younger folk today from the hit movie Walk the Line and from the brilliant series of albums he made towards the end of his life with Rick Rubin on the American Recordings label. His creative work between leaving Sun Records and his work with Rubin has been somewhat neglected of late.

The rock crowd may be surprised to know that the concept album was invented by a certain Mr. Frank Sinatra, who first realized the potential of the new long playing record and used it to create albums that were more than simple collections of singles, but had a cohesive identity that made them more than the sum of their parts.

Johnny Cash was swift to follow Sinatra's lead. His 1959 Columbia Records albums Hymns and Songs of Our Soil were loose collections around simple themes, but his 1960 album Ride This Train was altogether more ambitious.

Ride This Train is not an album of train songs. Rather it is a travelogue of a journey on board an imaginary train that travels across state borders and through time. It's also the first Americana album. It's a celebration of American values, but Cash does not forget to pay tribute to the American Indian, who would be the subject of one of his greatest albums in a few years' time (Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian).

It also reveals Cash's poetic talent. Each song begins with the sound of a steam locomotive and the words "Ride this train...", followed by a poetic monologue written by Cash in the persona of the character whom the following song is about.

The travelogue begins with a recital of the place-names of America, majestic in their artless poetry, and continues with the thundering names of the Indian tribes who lived there first. Then Johnny Cash boards the train, stopping first at a a small town in the mining country of Kentucky. He presents a brief sketch of a boy whose father is a miner - when he comes home "nothing is clean but the whites of his eyes" - and whose ambition is to follow that calling. This leads to the first song, Loading Coal, which was written by the great Merle Travis, who himself came from a mining family, and who wrote many classic songs as well as inventing the "Travis picking" style of guitar-playing. In the second selection, Cash travels to Mississippi and its levees and constant fight against flood waters. In this sequence Cash sings his own version of the traditional Going to Memphis, a song of the convict work gangs.

Ride This Train was the first of a series of Cash albums celebrating or exploring various aspects of America. Although he rarely makes explicit political comment or "protests" (though see again Bitter Tears), his concerns are the same as the protest crowd; but he documents rather than sloganizing or advocating. It is this aspect of Cash's great series of 1960s concept albums that makes them classics of the folk music genre as well as of country music.

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