We love the 33 1/3 series from Continuum, which explores individual albums through slender investigations from rock critics such as Rob Trucks on Fleetwood Mac and Amanda Petrusich on Nick Drake alongside takes from musicians like John Darnielle on Black Sabbath and Colin Meloy on The Replacements. This week marks the release of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings by Tony Tost, whose previous publications include primarily poetry. Here Tost delves into Johnny Cash’s recording of Tom Waits’ “Down There by the Train.”
When the contemporary NPR-folk entertainer Keb’Mo’ covered Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” on Kindred Spirits: a Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash, produced by Marty Stuart and released in 2002, Mr. Mo’ tamed the song by revising Cash’s most famous line. “They say I killed a man in Reno,” his version goes, “But that is just a lie.” Apparently for Mo’, who was unfamiliar with any of Cash’s work prior to Stuart’s somewhat generous invitation, compassion is due to the innocent alone; the only suffering that is recognized is that of the victim. Aside from bungling an immortal lyric, what Mo’ offers is not only a woeful constriction of grace’s circumference but also an immature refusal of his own capacity for, and complicity with, all the violence and cruelty in the world. It is grieving for the downtrodden while ignoring how one’s own boot heel leaves a mark on their throats.
If Cash’s violence was often excessive, it was never gratuitous. “Blessed with a profound imagination,” Dylan wrote of Cash, “he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.” Cash took residence within songs in which sinners too were brought into conversation with the possibilities of grace and human dignity, songs in which even the wicked were invited to share their song. When he conjured moral authority expertly in his work, that authority was derived not from his ability to embody normative values but from his drive to sing powerfully from a location outside of a moralistic middle-range. Cash had a unique genius for bridging and containing these locations within the mythic version of himself: not as contradictions, but as a total vision.
The train—with all its violent momentum and lonesome boom-chicka-boom beauty—was often the figure through which Cash made these extremes more palpable. Within the world of “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash granted the narrator his humanity by juxtaposing the callous description of killing a man in Reno “just to watch him die” with the sound of the “lonesome whistle.” This is not a generalized desire to be free, but a very specific lust for freedom, mixed with regret for the original crime and an acknowledgement of the impossibility of freedom, at least until death’s train rolls by. The famous line about killing a man in Reno is in fact a confession denouncing his previous ruthlessness, not a boast affirming it—“just to watch him die” is made to rhyme with, and is completed by, “hang my head and cry,” an act triggered by the sound of a train he will never board.
Perhaps only an artist with a similarly obsessive feel for the American past could be made sufficient to the mythic potencies of Cash’s train. Tom Waits—sort of the hobo Heraclitus of the postmodern world—originally wrote “Down There by the Train” for white bluesman John Hammond (fortunate son of the legendary Columbia Records maven), who thankfully never recorded the song. In an interview with Bob Mehr in 2007, Waits recalled the casual manner by which his miniature epic found its fateful way to Cash. “I had a friend who was playing guitar with him at the time, Smokey Hormel,” said Waits. “Smokey said, ‘Yeah, Johnny’s going to be doing other people’s tunes. Send us down something.’” Certainly, Waits selected the correct song to shuttle down the line. “I had a song and I hadn’t recorded it,” Waits recalled in another interview. “So I said, ‘Hey – it’s got all the stuff that Johnny likes – trains and death, John Wilkes Booth, the cross… OK!’” The song that Waits gave to Cash (and that Waits re-recorded for his own Orphans box set) had an extra verse that Cash excised:
So, if you live in darkness, if you live in shame
All of the passengers will be treated the same
And old Humpty Jackson and Gyp the Blood will sing
And Charlie Whitman is holding onto Dillinger’s wings
In interviews, Waits has repeatedly expressed astonishment and gratification that Cash, a man whom he had been listening to since childhood, deemed one of his songs worthy of performance, even if Cash had decided the song needed some trimming. “He would change some of it and I thought: ‘Oh, boy! Well I guess he must have thought it needed some changing!’” Waits later said. “I should have talked to him before I finished! Probably could have helped me!”
The slow, staggering opening of Cash’s version emphasizes the enormity of the man’s voice, all the knowledge, weariness and otherworldly hope that appear as soon as he touches his tongue to Waits’ words. “There’s a place I know,” Cash begins, slowly, almost hesitantly, “where the train goes slow.” For a hardcore Cash devotee, it is astonishing to consider that Waits had not in fact written the song specifically for Cash, as is often assumed. As if by providence, Waits’ opening lines evoke Cash’s own reminisces about his boyhood Arkansas home, about how after his father Ray would come back from riding the rails in search of work Cash would sometimes see him come tumbling out of a train. Cash’s family in fact did live near a curve on the railroad line, a spot where the train slowed down enough that Cash’s father could leap clear with minimal risk.
Moving from this uncannily autobiographical image, the song creeps into familiar gospel territory, where the blood of the lamb washes away all mortal sins. At first, the landscape is nearly too familiarly pastoral, full of dogwoods and weeping willows; rapt by the bucolic landscape, we may be slow to realize that all of this earthly beauty marks off the area known as Sinner’s Grove. This lush grove of iniquity is also the place where the train slows down so to cross the river’s bridge, and so it is only here that you can arrive with any hope of boarding. Here, one of the most pleasurable moments on the album also arrives: a splinter of silence, and then Cash thumbs a gentle chord and calls out, proud and forsaken: “You can hear the whistle! You can hear the bells!” It’s not just a sound but an answer that Cash hears in that whistle.
“Down There By the Train” takes the train’s call and has it resound from the vaults of heaven down to the murky floors of hell; its provocation and power is in how far it pushes the circumference of grace. “There’s room for the forsaken,” the song promises, but only if you arrive on time, a variation on the lesson of countless gospel songs, most notably Curtis Mayfield’s classic “People Get Ready.” “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner,” Mayfied’s song cautioned, reminding its listener of the inextricability of one’s own salvation from the fate of one’s social world, “who would hurt all mankind just to save his own.” The version of “Down There By the Train” that Waits sent to Cash lifted the imagery of Mayfield’s song but also altered its spiritual content, promising salvation but withholding the judgment that came along with it.
But as was the case with all of the revisions he brought upon the material he performed for American Recordings, Cash’s excision of Waits’ most explicit verse not only strengthened the song’s impact, it also lent it a new complexity. “If you live in darkness, if you live in shame,” Waits’ lyrics offered, “all of the passengers will be treated the same.” Certainly more theologically invested than Waits, it seems the thin line between wanting absolution for one’s sins—walking to the station and waiting for the train to arrive—and being granted that absolution—actually riding and singing on that train—was something that Cash could not allow himself to voice. On his fourth American album with Rubin, Cash would even directly contradict the sentiment in maybe his greatest composition, “The Man Comes Around,” which Cash called his “song of the apocalypse.”
After reciting appropriately spine-chilling verses from Revelation, Cash in “The Man Comes Around” unloads his apocalyptic visions. “There’s a man comin’ around, takin’ names,” he sings, “and he decides who to free and who to blame.” In case we are attempting to comfort ourselves with Waitsian thoughts of universal salvation, Cash informs us in the next line that “everybody won’t be treated all the same.” “I got the idea from a dream that I had,” Cash told Larry King in 2002. “I dreamed I saw Queen Elizabeth. I dreamed I went in to Buckingham Palace, and there she sat on the floor. And she looked up at me and said, ‘Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.’” Cash tried to put the dream out of his mind for several years, but was haunted by the imagery. “I kept thinking about it, how vivid it was, and then I thought, maybe it’s biblical. So I found it. Something about whirlwinds and thorn trees in the Bible. So from that, my song started.” In “The Man Comes Around,” Cash plumbed the darkness and the light contained within the eternity promised by Christianity, as in Jeremiah 30:23: “Behold, the whirlwind of the LORD goeth forth with fury, a continuing whirlwind: it shall fall with pain upon the head of the wicked.” This is precisely the rage and fury of the divine that is withheld by Waits’ lyrics, especially as he has notorious American killers and criminals riding on this holy train: turn of the 20th century New York underworld hunchback kingpin killer Humpty Jackson; his contemporary, the criminal assassin Harry Horowitz, also known as Gyp the Blood; mentally afflicted Charlie Whitman, the University of Texas student and former Marine who climbed up into a tower at the university and gunned down dozens; and John Dillinger, the famous Depression-era gangster.
In Psalm 58:9, David writes that “Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in wrath,” establishing the obscure biblical verse in which Cash discovered his dream decree. David’s statement refers to the violent judgment God will lay upon the wicked, who will be extinguished even more quickly than the species of thorn, Spina Christi, that grows near Jerusalem and that has been valued because of how quickly it catches fire. It is the unhesitant vengeance that, paraphrasing Revelation, Cash foresees in “The Man Comes Around”: “Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still. Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.” Such uncompromising judgment is nowhere to be found within Waits’ scene of Dillinger and company singing and fondling one another’s wings on their holy train, much closer in fact to the worldview of Cash’s fellow Memphis theologian Jerry Lee Lewis. Arguing with Nick Tosches, Lewis offered counsel. “On Judgment Day, you and I are gonna have to give account for the deeds that we’ve done,” Lewis told Tosches between threats of shoving the great writer’s tape recorder down his throat. “Soon you and me are gonna have to reckon with the chilling hands of death.”
The judgment that Lewis foresaw meshes and amplifies the one that Cash sings about in “The Man Comes Around.” “We ain’t loyal to God, we must be loyal to Satan,” Lewis told Tosches. “Got to be loyal twenty-four hours a day, brother.” The version of “Down There By The Train” that Waits sent Cash, however, asserted complete redemption as an automatic; Dillinger et al are on the train, they have formed an angel band, regardless of either their deeds or faiths. Lewis and “The Man Comes Around” assert a much different view, one that Cash meditated on deeply at the close of his life. “I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote,” Cash wrote, regarding “The Man Comes Around.” “It’s based, loosely, on the book of Revelation, with a couple of lines, or a chorus, from other biblical sources. I must have written three dozen pages of lyrics, then painfully weeded it down to the song you have here.”
In Waitsian theology, one enters salvation whether one chooses or desires it; it is perfunctory, and such salvation assumes the power of the divine to override any and all tenets and deeds writ beneath one’s mortal name. In Lewisian theology, the divine holds itself in repose: salvation is entirely dependent upon the mortal and it must be fought for daily, by tooth and by claw. On the version of “Down There By the Train” Cash recorded for American Recordings, the perspective leans towards neither Waits nor Lewis simply because it does not show anyone actually receiving salvation. We are instead introduced to a cast of characters moving toward salvation, waiting for its train but not yet boarding it.
Cash’s revision of Waits’ song also sharpened its focus, getting closer to the song’s essence. With Waits’ cast of American miscreants struck from the lyrical record, the song now maintained a truer balance between its American and Christian imageries, with each of those images resonating now as even more fundamental and archetypal. As interesting as Gyp the Blood, Humpty Jackson, Charlie Whitman and Dillinger may be in profile, they are also interchangeable with scores if not hundreds of other infamous American citizens: Lupo the Wolf, Lee Boyd Malvo, Babyface Nelson, Joseph Kennedy Sr., John Walker Lindh, etc. Excusing these criminal Americans, Cash leaves the song with just a handful of characters: Judas Iscariot, John Wilkes Booth, St. Longinus (the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord), all the shamefuls, all the whores, Cash himself and, finally, the listener.
This is where a circuit between the holy and American is made most explicit by Cash, a charge that spreads from this song throughout the rest of the album. When Dante Aligheri wrote The Divine Comedy in the 14th century, he began his epic with the ghastliest dream of Hell on literary record, his famous Inferno. At the lowest level of the Inferno, Dante imagined a beastly, three-faced Satan trapped in ice. In the jaws of this monster were three immortal traitors: Cassius and Brutus, betrayers of Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Christ. From a modern perspective, it is strange to see a Christian hell fusing secular Roman traitors with the fundamental Christian traitor, but a large portion of Dante’s ambition, and ultimate accomplishment, was to synthesize the classical tradition—represented by the great Roman emperor Caesar and the Roman bard Virgil, who serves as Dante’s infernal guide—with Christian doctrine.
Dante knew that the most effective means of such synthesis was through poetic imagery. By stripping away some of Waits’ lyrical excesses, and through his own portentous delivery, Cash likewise seized the most transcendent image of “Down There By the Train.” It is an image that captures history’s most damned cosmic criminals at a revelatory moment, each in search of an inconceivable redemption. “There’ll be no eye for an eye, there’ll be no tooth for a tooth,” Cash intones, “I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth. He was down there by the train . . .” Redemption is like the truth, the image tells us; it is always apocryphal. Grace revealing itself as mystery. And not only does the Judas-Booth image weld Christian and American histories together, forging a momentary equivalence, it captures these traitors not after some moment of redemption—as in “Why Me” or in the image of Charlie Whitman dangling from Dillinger’s wings—but at a moment of desire for redemption, when Booth and Judas both recognize that they are in need of redemption and have begun a movement in that direction.
And in a brilliant, backdoor fashion, Cash and Waits confirm the lesson written into “People Get Ready.” John Wilkes Booth and Judas Iscariot do not seek their redemption in solitary, desperado fashion. Rather, Judas carries Booth to where the train goes slow, an act that itself hints that the great religious traitor—the Benedict Arnold of biblical times—has begun to be transformed, that a desire for redemption may have already begun its procedures. The song evokes its strange power not only from its blurring of Christian and American myths but from Cash’s ability to perceive even within the dark heart of the traitor some kind of redeeming light. Cash took the simple “gospel train song” his author sent him and transformed it into the grounded, oddly humanistic anthem that anchors his greatest album, a song celebrating the human animal’s capacity to recognize its own sinful nature and to still seek redemption in the eyes of some greater power. And even if that power exists only in song, by seeking for it with such exacting passion, Cash still has made for us a sacred place.