Tomorrow is the birthday of Johnny Cash, someone who I’d call one of my father’s musical heroes (I guess, more on that tomorrow). And here’s where one of my main musical heroes meets his. Dad never had much good to say about whiny Bobby Dylan, but John R. Cash loved him, admired him, and helped him.
Dylan, here doing a song Cash recorded for Sun Studios in 1956, as part of a gala musical tribute to Cash back when Cash was 67 and Dylan not yet 58, thanks Johnny at the outset “for standing up for me way back when”—back when Dylan’s “new direction” was alarming the folk purists and the guardians of the counter-culture.
The song, “Train of Love,” is mainly memorable in Cash's version for how nimble its rhymes are. Dylan, quite the rhymester in his own right, introduces the song by saying he “used to sing this song before I ever wrote a song.” Indeed. I didn’t know it at all, in Cash’s recording, until hearing Dylan do it on TV. And it was only later, after picking up a bootleg vinyl pressing of extra songs from Tell-Tale Signs era recordings, that I really got to know it.
Dylan, accompanied by some tasty slide guitar, puts his characteristic whine into this one, and with his back-up vocalist providing the high notes, each chorus of the song gets increasingly passionate, with the first line like drawing back a catapult to launch the second line: “Every so often everybody’s baby gets the urge to roam / Everybody’s baby but mine’s comin’ home.” Dylan sings each verse like he’s staring down the barrel of a gun (he’s in fact staring into the TV camera and is being broadcast onto a big screen in front of Johnny Cash and the well-wishers gathered at the tribute in April, 1999).
“Train man, tell me, maybe / Ain’t you got my baby.” The poor sap in the song is waiting as the train he hopes will be bringing his love back to him comes and goes without her ever disembarking. He notes all the people waiting to reunite, “here and there, and everywhere, they're gonna be embracin'," which seems more of a stab as we go on.
The part that always gets me, that I wait for, is the last verse. “Train of love’s a-leavin’ / Leavin’ my heart grievin’ / But early or late / I sit and I wait / Because I’m still believin’ / We’ll walk away together / Though I might wait forever.” Dylan swallows the last part, seeming a bit uncertain about that walk together, but what he gives abundant force to is the part about waiting, early or late, still believing. I consider that the take away: like anyone awaiting inspiration, we sit and we wait, early or late, still believing something will come. There's always another train.