I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since, I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,
But that train keeps a-rollin’,
On down to San Antone.
When I was just a baby,
My Mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy,
Don’t ever play with guns,”
But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him die,
When I hear that whistle blowin’,
I hang my head and cry.
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’,
In a fancy dining car,
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee,
And smokin’ big cigars,
But I know I had it comin’,
I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a-movin’,
And that’s what tortures me.
Well, if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine,
I bet I’d move out over a little,
Farther down the line,
Far from Folsom Prison,
That’s where I want to stay,
And I’d let that lonesome whistle,
Blow my Blues away. – Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
How many songs have been written about jailbreak and heartache? It seems the catalogue runs from at least Johnny Cash’s Fulson Prison Blues to AC/DC’s 1974 EP “Jailbreak”! And to be fair, there’s biblical warrant. Believers bust out of prison with the help of the Almighty no less than twice in the book of Acts 5:17-21, 12:6-11, and then there’s the one that tops them all – this weeks reading (click here to read it)
Johnny Cash famously brought the “torture” of prison blues to life in his song. Maybe we can sum it up this way: while we have a dream that fulfills our longings, the cold hard reality is…it will never be. In this case, Cash’s song is about freedom that will never be realized. Instead the inmate is tortured by the freedom of the train that whistles by and the iron bars that stare back endlessly, day after day and night after night.
In some ways, maybe this caricature of blues music reveals one possible existential truth about humanity – we long for what we cannot have. Peace. Justice. Equality for all. Freedom. Food and Water and Shelter.
After one look at the paper or the news, shouldn’t we all be singin’ those blues? We despair at the state of humanity’s betrayal of itself – violence, death, hatred, fear – they run rampant in our headlines and in fact, are the stuff evening journalism depends upon for income. No news is good news right? There’s not much of a market for good news (except at church)
Naturally, we seem to believe that our response to despair and suffering must be one of lament. The Psalms, also known as the Blues Songbook of the Bible, taught us that. But the Psalmist taught us something else too – that proper “blues” don’t end in hopelessness – they wait on the coming of the Lord. The Psalms, even the bleakest, heartache-riddled and soul crushed laments, end in praise. That’s a little strange to our culture these days – why would our response in the middle of suffering and uncertainty be to sing a happy hallelujah?
Blues music has a