Articles: A legend’s final bow

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By Bobby Gilles

Johnny Cash wrote his first song in 1955, a song about a train called “Hey Porter.” His final composition, released in 2006 on the posthumous American V: A Hundred Highways, is also about a train. The Delta blues-inspired “Like The 309” shows that he remained a master storyteller to the end.

“Hey Porter” heralded the sound of a young man arriving — an eager, brash hipster who couldn’t wait to get off the train, to reach his destination, to smell the frost, to breathe the air. The narrator of “Like The 309” isn’t daydreaming about breathing fresh air; he just wishes he could breathe freely. It’s the song of a man waiting, this time, to board a train — one that stands as a metaphor for dying.

The rhyme scheme is simple, the lines concise. The train is all the more real to us because he’s given it a specific name: “The 309.” Then he starts the first line with, “It should be awhile before I see Dr. Death,” personifying death (that is, turning it into a character) and giving it an ironic title: “Doctor.” Death as a healer.

Humor keeps this song-meditation on death from becoming maudlin: “Take me to the depot, put me to bed / Blow an electric fan on my gnarly old head / Everybody take a look — see I’m doing fine / Then load my box on the 309.” This humble, tongue-in-cheek look at life and death permeates the album and enables him to include more stark fare from writers like Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen and Larry Gatlin. It’s a lesson that many a weepy, young neo-folk singer should heed: unrelenting lament creates melodrama, not gravitas.

Cash draws the listener into the story by telling us what to do for him with strong, direct action verbs that need no modifiers: kiss, draw, sweep, write, tell, load.

“Give a drink of my wine to my Jersey cow / I wouldn?t give a hoot in hell for my journey now.” Wine is a symbol of affluence, worldly success. He is saying “My trophies, my hits, my possessions – I can’t take them with me so give ’em to the cow.” In a similar way he blows to pieces the notion that his talent makes him worthy of adoration in his cover of Don Gibson’s “A Legend In My Time:” “If they gave gold statuettes for tears and regrets / I’d be a legend in my time.”

Back on the 309 we have more humor: “Asthma coming down like the 309.” Asthma as a locomotive – one that symbolizes death, at that. Fresh imagery, yet anyone who has ever suffered an asthma attack could say, “Yep, that’s what it feels like.” Cash sings the line and then he exhales, wheezes into the microphone. One more second, a little more effect, and it would become a kitschy moment, but his comedic timing is impeccable.

One final verse, a statement of assurance in the face of temporal judgment: “Write me a letter, sing me a song / Tell me all about it – what I did wrong / Meanwhile I will be doing fine / Then load my box on the 309.” It makes sense in the context of the album and works with the other Cash composition therein, “I Came To Believe,” his statement of salvation.

One last exhortation to “load my box on the 309” and the music fades out. “309” won’t be remembered as a towering masterpiece in the order of “I Walk The Line,” or “Folsom Prison Blues,” and future generations won’t regard it as the major artistic statement of the final leg of his career (that honor belongs to his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”) but it is a satisfying denouement to a legendary career. One final sojourner’s song, one more train to write about, sing about and board. He came to us on a literary train; he left us on a train. And he taught us a few things in between.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sojournmusic.com.

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