Johnny Cash Rides the Rails Through Georgia

By Donnie Summerlin

In September 1974, country music legend Johnny Cash spent several days in west central Georgia to film scenes for an ABC television documentary titled Ridin’ the Rails: The Great American Train Story. Cash hosted and narrated the musical homage to the history of American railroads. It was a memorable occasion for the locals who participated in the production and got to meet with the Man in Black during his brief Georgia stopover. For Johnny Cash, it was a bit of a homecoming.

Johnny Cash shaking hands with Melville Brown, who owned the land in Pike County where they filmed portions of the television special. From the September 16, 1974 issue of the Griffin Daily News.

Cash and the television crew filmed historical reenactments in Pike and Spalding Counties and took a breathtaking train ride through the Georgia countryside. They also shot scenes in Rossville, the Big Shanty Station in Kennesaw, Stone Mountain, and Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell. Among the events highlighted in Georgia for the TV special were the Great Locomotive Chase that took place during the Civil War and a reinactment of the story of train engineer Casey Jones.

During a stop in Griffin, Cash (accompanied by his father Ray) visited the Spalding County jail. The country singer was a high-profile advocate for prisoners’ rights and famously recorded two live albums at the Folsom and San Quentin state prisons in the late 1960s. As Cash talked with local officials outside, the inmates called out to him from the top floor of the jail and asked him to come inside for a visit. Although Cash was asked not to go upstairs, he shouted to them from the parking lot. The Griffin Daily News was on hand to photograph the country legend with excited locals and those photos are available on the Georgia Historic Newspapers website. The issues were digitized with funding from the Spalding County SPLOST via the Flint River Regional Library System.

Johnny Cash with Spalding Sheriff’s Department secretaries Linda Fields and Rosa Howard. From the September 14, 1974 issue of the Griffin Daily News.
Johnny Cash talking with inmates at the Spalding County jail. From the September 14, 1974 issue of the Griffin Daily News.

During his conversation with the Griffin residents, Cash mentioned that he had a grandfather who lived in the area and still had cousins in the surrounding counties. In fact, his great-great-great-grandparents John and Lucy Campbell Cash moved to Georgia after the end of the Revolutionary War and eventually settled in nearby Henry County. Many of Johnny Cash’s descendants also lived in Elbert County before his grandfather William H. Cash moved his family to Arkansas, where Johnny Cash was born. Evidence of his genealogy can be found in the Georgia Historic Newspapers and Chronicling America websites.

Legal notice concerning the estate of Johnny Cash’s great-great-grandparents who resided in Elbert County, Georgia. From the January 17, 1854 issue of the Daily Chronicle & Sentinel (Augusta).
Obituary for Johnny Cash’s Georgia-born grandfather William Henry Cash from the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic (Arkansas). Courtesy of Chronicling America.

Ridin’ the Rails: The Great American Train Story premiered on ABC on November 22, 1974. The nostalgic television special featured Cash performing several train songs including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The City of New Orleans,” and “Ridin’ the Rails.” Over the course of an hour, the film captures not just the history of railroads, but also a moment in time when Johnny Cash reconnected with his Georgia roots. The American Rail Club currently hosts the special on YouTube.

Newspaper ad for the Ridin’ the Rails television special on ABC. From the November 22, 1974 issue of the Griffin Daily News.

How the DLG Helps the Georgia Senate Press Office Conduct Its Research

by Andrew Allison

The Georgia Senate Press Office is the official place for the Georgia Senate to deal with the press and the media. It is a non-partisan office and is responsible for writing and sending out press releases, media advisories, columns, and opinion pieces for each of the 56 Senators at their request.

As its director, I’m in charge of our small team, which handles the above-mentioned communication needs and plans communications for the Georgia state Senate as a whole. We also live stream all official Senate meetings and activities on the Senate floor and run all of the Senate’s social media accounts.

Research is a constant part of our job. If a lawmaker wants to file a bill on a particular topic, we often research the issue in general, keep an eye on how the news covers it, and find out what everyone’s positions are before writing a press release, column, etc. Sometimes, these topics are timely, and most research can be done quickly. There are times, however, when we need more in-depth tools to find historical data on specific legislative topics.

I actually first found out about the DLG recently when, earlier this year, we had a slower day at work and several new staff members in our office. I thought it would be a good idea for us all to take the generic tour of the Capitol that the Georgia Capitol Museum provides, just to find out if there was anything we didn’t already know about the place we work.

That tour was eye-opening in several ways, and the tour guide provided a great deal of information that I (even being obsessed with Georgia’s political history and having worked here for over six years) never knew. When we asked where we could find out more, she suggested we take a look at the Digital Library of Georgia. It’s been one of my most frequently visited websites ever since.

Several images we have used in our publications recently that we found inside the DLG include the old state Capitol in Milledgeville and an older image of the current Capitol building.

Title: State Capitol at Milledgeville. From the description: Image of an illustration depicting the old Georgia state capitol in Milledgeville, Georgia, circa 1850.








Title: Georgia State Capitol Building. Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Kenan Research Center. From the description: View of the Georgia State Capitol Building looking southeast from the Equitable Building at the corner of Pryor Street and Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.










The primary publication the DLG has been essential in making a reality is The Parliamentary Inquirer, which our office started earlier this year. This magazine aims to highlight the work the Georgia General Assembly undertakes outside of the session and share some fun and informative stories about Georgia politics and history. Simply put, we could not produce a magazine of this caliber without the help of the DLG. There is no other place where primary source documents and images are so readily available and searchable. For example, we recently did an article on the history of Georgia’s state capitals.

I was about to find a copy of the Senate Journal from the day the General Assembly formally changed from a temporary meeting space to the building they use today. For additional context, I found newspaper archives (also through DLG) that described a reporter’s perspective of the festivities surrounding the procession from the old Capitol to the new one. Items like this have traditionally been so difficult to come by. Having them so easily accessible has allowed us to add historical context our work would otherwise be lacking.

I am sure there are collections and features we haven’t yet taken full advantage of. However, the resources supplied by the Atlanta History Center are always very insightful and unique. Without the primary source documents and photos available through DLG, the value of publications like The Parliamentary Inquirer would be severely lacking. Having access to these old legislative records, photographs, journals, and newspaper clippings adds so much to our production value and constantly helps us generate new ideas for future articles.

Typically, we work on our magazine articles during downtime during the day, as our primary job responsibilities are to ensure our senators have everything they need. Therefore, being able to search for something online when we have a few spare minutes is far preferable. Simply put, if these materials were not available for free online, it is likely we would not have utilized the DLG due to funding constraints. If the content existed behind a paywall, we would never have been able to access it.

The DLG is an excellent reflection of the demographics of our state. For example, we worked on an article about Georgia’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and, through publications made available through the DLG, we could locate student newspapers and newsletters from several HBCUs dating back to the 19th century. In the past, the struggle has always been to find primary source documents from rural Georgia. While we have yet to run into any specific issues locating any materials, we find that documents from small, rural towns are harder to come by, and appreciate when those are made available.

Readers can follow the Georgia Senate Press Office at the following social media handles:

Twitter: @GASenatePress
Instagram: @gasenatepress