Riding the Rails – Analog Mutant Movie Review

Cover of "Riding the Rails"

Cover of Riding the Rails

 Riding the Rails is a PBS documentary about the experiences of Depression Era youth who took to the open road via the network of railroads criss-crossing the country.

Filmed in 1997, the movie consists of archival footage mixed with interviews of people (at the time in their 70’s & 80’s) who left home to escape the crushing poverty of the Great Depression. Some went to find work to send money back home. Some left, or were forced to leave, to fend for themselves in order to alleviate the financial burdens on the family. Some simply left for adventure.

While much of the discussion romanticizes life on the rails, most of the people interviewed talk about how hard life on the road really was.

Hopelessness, despair, hunger, cold, emotional isolation, humiliation and physical dangers were constant companions. Most of the former “rail kids” had stories of witnessing someone suffer terrible injuries or even death by misadventure on the rails.

Many of the people interviewed discuss abuse and mistreatment from law enforcement, railroad companies, and people in the communities that they travelled to. Employers took advantage of people frequently, paying little to no wages, and not protecting the health or rights of transient workers. Disrespect and harassment from people in the towns was all too commonplace. Hospitals routinely denied medical treatment. Railroad detectives inflicted humiliation and violence with little restraint. Police could arrest you on the flimsiest of pretenses. Simply being charged with vagrancy was enough to land you on a chain gang. Things got even worse if you were a minority. And all of this was at a time before social services and infrastructure were in place to help alleviate the suffering of homelessness and poverty.

The birth of the Civilian Conservation Corps is covered in this documentary. The CCC provided many young people with a productive way out of a life on the road. The CCC was a viable way for young people to contribute to the nation and help themselves or their families back home during tough times

Along with the archival footage and the modern day interviews, the music is a vital element to the movie. Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and more all contribute tracks that enhance the overall experience of the story in an authentic manner.

 Riding the Rails is available on dvd at the Grand Rapids Public Library.


About analogmutant

art, music, food, movies, citizen journalism, activism, and whatever else i am into at the moment...
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