Part of Simon Nelson's CD collection from Paul Simon to Tom Waits.

Records can change your life. As kids growing up we were exposed to a varied collection of vinyl records, from the likes of Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller through to Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash. It was from Cash we got our first taste of the history and geography of the United States. ‘Ride This Train’, recorded in 1960, imagines a journey by train around America, taking the listener on a tour through space and time, and features a narration by Cash which is as absorbing as the songs themselves.

Johnny Cash - Ride This Train album cover

Johnny Cash – Ride This Train album cover

The musical journey begins with a recitation of Native American tribe names, before launching into the Merle Travis song Loading Coal:

Loading Coal

My pappy said when I was seventeen

You’re six feet tall and your face is clean

And it don’t look right for a boy that old

To not make a livin’ loadin’ coal …

Cash takes on the persona of the outlaw John Wesley Hardin for his own Slow Rider:

Slow Rider

Slow rider, slow rider move on a little more

The sky boss is waitin’ at the big ranch house door

Then heads out to work as a lumberjack in Oregon:

I lived on a farm out in Iowa

I pulled the corn and I worked in the hay

Got trapped by a girl but I wiggled free

Heard the Oregon timber callin’ me

Other tracks include Tex Ritter’s Boss Jack, in which Cash takes on the voice of both slave and master in his hometown of Dyess, Arkansas, the tragic tale of Dorraine of Ponchartrain, the sentimental Old Doc Brown and the nostalgic When Papa Played the Dobro.

The standout track, however, is Going to Memphis with its chain-gang rhythm and one of the coolest vocal performances of Cash’s career:

I’m Going to Memphis

Like a bitter weed, I’m a bad seed

But when that levee’s through and I am too

Let the honky tonk roll on

Come mornin’ I’ll be gone

I’m goin’ to Memphis, yeah Memphis

It’s a wonderful trip.

As young boys, growing up in the Midlands, we would listen in wonder to the rolling bass-baritone of Cash’s voice, absorbing the stories and the place names, never dreaming that one day we would make our own journeys across that fascinating land, from the Mississippi Delta to the coast of California, from the forests and mountains of New Hampshire to the high desert of New Mexico. Boston, New York, Nashville, Tucson. Its been a hell of a ride. Thanks Johnny for pointing out the way.


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