Monday, June 22, 2009

"I heard that lonesome whistle..."

American music icon Johnny Cash was no stranger railroading or to the B&O Railroad Museum. Throughout his career the lyrics of his country and rockabilly songs wove trains, railroads and railroad workers in and out of his American ballads. Album covers sported names like All Aboard the Blue Train and Ride This Train and many of the songs recorded therein were themed around the railroad. Familiar lyrics to Wreck of the Old ’97, Rock Island Line, Train of Love, and Hey Porter! will live in American musicology forever. His back up band “Tennessee Three” that accompanied him for more than 40 years even developed a unique “chicka-boom” freight train sound inextricably linked to Cash’s music.

Cash rode on the B&O many times in his career going from engagement to engagement. In 1962 while on an East Coast concert tour, Cash visited the Museum, then called the “B&O Transportation Museum.” In 1986, officers of the Chessie System (about to become CSX) invited Cash to join the Museum’s replica locomotive “Tom Thumb” at SteamExpo 1986 in Vancouver British Columbia. The Vancouver expo featured 21 historic early steam locomotives and one crane all under live steam for the event held in May and June of 1986.

Johnny Cash poses in front of the replica steam locomotives "Best Friend of Charleston and the B&O's Museum's "Tom Thumb."

As the B&O Railroad Museum prepared to celebrate the 175th anniversary of American railroading 2003-2004, the Smithsonian’s senior curator of transportation Bill Withuhn, working closely with Museum officials successfully engaged Johnny Cash to be the spokesperson for the crown jewel of the celebration The Fair of the Iron Horse 175.

Publicity photograph of Johnny Cash authorized for use by the B&O Railroad Museum for the celebration of the 175th anniversary of American railroading 2002-2003.

In that role and with his health rapidly deteriorating Cash wrote several letters on behalf of the museum and the celebration and had agreed to appear at the Fair scheduled for the summer of 2004. The Fair of the Iron Horse 175 and the remainder of the celebration was cancelled due to the tragic collapse of the Museum’s roundhouse roof during the President’s Day snowstorm February 16-17, 2003.

Johnny Cash passed away on September 12, 2003 leaving a legacy of railroad music to the ages.

Courtney B. Wilson
Executive Director