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Walking the line and storytelling

There’s something primal about the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s songs. It’s easy to take them for granted because they seem so simple. At the core, however, they’re anything but. There’s an authenticity that’s as familiar as it is true. Yet there’s a uniqueness and complexity that speaks to us as well. His tunes are accessible but never boring. We return to them again and again.

The same is true of his lyrics. Most of us are familiar with “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” That’s a cold dude. Reminds me of another favorite line by Elvis Costello “she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.” But I digress.

In ”Hey Porter”, Cash’s first big hit, he tells the story of a young southern boy who aches to return home—a universal story if ever there was one. Through the lyrics we hear the story as the hero initiates a dialogue with the train’s porter. “Would you tell me the time?” He’s eager and wants to know how long it’ll be before he gets home.

You can feel his excitement throughout the poem. He thinks everyone on the train is as excited as he is—surely they want to join in the celebration. He pleads to stop the train and look around or at least ring the bell! Later in the night when he realizes they’ve finally traveled south of the Mason Dixon his imagination runs wild. He claims he can smell the frost on the cotton leaves.

At the end of his journey as he reaches his destination he pleads with the porter to get his bags—“when they stop the train I’m gonna get off first cause I can’t wait no more.” He can’t wait to set his feet on hallowed ground and breathe the sweet air of home. Who hasn’t felt such relief when returning after a long journey?

In five short stanzas Cash connects with each of us through a story as old as time, and reminds each of us of emotions we all know too well.

A master at work.

Hey porter! Hey porter!
Would you tell me the time?
How much longer will it be till we cross
that Mason Dixon Line?
At daylight would ya tell that engineer
to slow it down?
Or better still, just stop the train,
Cause I wanna look around.

Hey porter! Hey porter!
What time did ya say?
How much longer will it be till I can
see the light of day?
When we hit Dixie will you tell that engineer
to ring his bell?
And ask everybody that ain’t asleep
to stand right up and yell.

Hey porter! Hey porter!
It’s getting light outside.
This old train is puffin’ smoke,
and I have to strain my eyes.
But ask that engineer if he will
blow his whistle please.
Cause I smell frost on cotton leaves
and I feel that Southern breeze.

Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please get my bags for me.
I need nobody to tell me now
that we’re in Tennessee.
Go tell that engineer to make that
lonesome whistle scream,
We’re not so far from home
so take it easy on the steam.

Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please open up the door.
When they stop the train I’m gonna get off first
Cause I can’t wait no more.
Tell that engineer I said thanks alot,
and I didn’t mind the fare.
I’m gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.

~ Johnny Cash


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