Down South: A Song For Miss Johnnie
By Tom Poland
—“I hear the train a’coming, rolling round the bend”
—“Look a-yonder comin’, comin’ down that railroad track, it’s the Orange Blossom Special, bringing my baby back” … Two songs the man in black sang. Two trains, similar names, and a story.
Oh sing that train song, Ronnie, … sing it through the year. Blow that horn, blow it for her to hear. Strum your guitar, strum it hard, cause Miss Johnnie someday soon is gonna meet the Lord …
And now I turn the clock back to long-gone days in the red clay state and one Ronnie Myers. My abiding memory of Ronnie is hearing him sing and play guitar in his high school band, the Comets. Ronnie strummed a red electric guitar if memory serves me right. The Comets? Well, they came to age during the British Invasion, and for a while I thought Lincolnton, Georgia, had an answer to the Beatles. Ronnie and the Comets played in the old Spires pool hall located between Charles Ware’s Hardware and East Beauty Shop—all no more. Nothing lasts forever, and that goes for railroad men and their devoted fans.
Ronnie and me? We parted the usual way. We graduated and moved on. Then some fifty years later, we crossed paths. He, too, lived in South Carolina and he had done something I envied: worked as a trainman. “Tell me some train stories, Ronnie; tell me some please.”
Among them is this lonely happy, happy lonely tale of what some folks call an old maid.
Who doesn’t need something to look forward to, something that gives life a cadence, rhythm. For Miss Johnnie O’Bryant trains did just that. The clacking of the rails must have been music to her. She lived in a small four-room house just west of Auburn, Georgia, about 100 yards from the railroad tracks that parallel Highway 29. “We could see her house really well from our train,” said Ronnie. “She lived all alone except for her cats.”
Miss Johnnie loved the railroad men and their conveyances of steel. She could hear the train a’coming, coming round the bend. By day, she waved a hankie; by night, a flashlight. “We all looked for her,” said Ronnie. “Even in the wee hours we would see her flashlight waving from her window. We always blew the whistle when we passed.”
Miss Johnnie lived in lean circumstances, so the men learned. At Christmas, the trainmen, conductors, and engineers would chip in some money and an old conductor friend of hers, Ben Powell, would drive to Auburn to deliver it. “Practically all 100 or so railroad men from Abbeville would contribute about $20 each,” said Ronnie.
An appreciative Miss Johnnie wrote letters to the men and they would put her letters on the bulletin board in the crew room at the Abbeville depot. She wrote about everyday life. Her flowers and vegetable garden, her cats, the frogs in the little spring close to her yard. (She didn’t have running water.) “She even had names for certain frogs,” said Ronnie. “She talked a lot about her favorite radio announcer, Ludlow Porch, whom she listened to religiously every day.”
Unfamiliar with Ludlow (Bobby Crawford Hanson)? Well, he was one of Lewis Grizzard’s stepbrothers. Ludlow, a humorist and radio talk-show host, always ended his show with, “Whatever else you do today, you find somebody to be nice to.”
Ronnie certainly did. “Occasionally I would be called to cover an outlying job and I would drive my personal car to other towns to work a switcher (an engine and crew that work local businesses). “One summer day I had gotten off work in Lawrenceville and driving home I decided to stop by Miss Johnnie’s and introduce myself. I wanted to meet the lady who always waved at us.”
Ronnie walked through Miss Johnnies’ fragrant purple old timey petunias; the perennial kind our southern grandmothers grew in their yards. He knocked on her screen door and waited. He waited some more and then her visage materialized through the screen. “It startled me at first. She had a serious, cautious look so I immediately told her my name and that I worked on the railroad and had been wanting to meet her.”
A smile crossed Miss Johnnie’s face and she invited Ronnie into her front room. “We had a chat about her cats and how dry the summer was.” She told Ronnie one of her cats was sick because it had eaten too many lizards. She told him she had loved trains and always lived near the tracks since she was a girl. And then music—that balm of the soul—entered the picture.
“Through the open bedroom door I saw an acoustic guitar on her bed,” said Ronnie. “I see you play guitar.” Miss Johnnie said she played a little bit and Ronnie said he did too. “Matter of fact I have mine out in the car.” You could say a mini-concert took place.
Miss Johnnie had an old Sears & Roebuck Silvertone guitar. “They were really good quality guitars back in the day before they started manufacturing cheap department store toy guitars and passing them off as real guitars,” said Ronnie. “Miss Johnnie played the guitar pretty well. She sang the old tune, ‘On Top of Old Smoky … all covered with snow, I lost my true lover for courtin’ too slow.’ ”
Ronnie couldn’t help but feel this “old widow” was thinking of an old boyfriend while singing. Maybe so. “An old railroad friend who lived near her told me she, a sister, and her mother had lived in that same old house as long as he could remember and that Miss Johnnie had taken care of them until they both died.”
After some music, Ronnie left Miss Johnnie’s with vegetables from her garden and a bag of dried apples she had placed on tin in that hot Georgia summer sun.
“I left with a good feeling and a song in my heart,” said Ronnie. A few months later in his Atlanta motel room, a melody popped into his head. And then the words came …
Miss Johnnie O’Bryant lived by our tracks, she always waved, and we waved back
On a midnight train, we’d see her light, and she’d hear our horn blow
I stopped by one summer day; her flowers smelled sweet in a strange purple haze
This lady loved trains like her flowers loved dew
She lived all her life in this small Georgia town reading her Bible and tilling the ground
When she leaves this world, full of sorrow and pain, when she goes to heaven, she’ll go on a train
She said I could have married a long time ago, I could have said yes, but always said no
I’d rather live all alone just to hear those old trains and their big engines moan
We who ride these rails every day, sure miss our families in so many ways, but just a wave in the passing, a how do you do, sure eases our sadness, it’s the least she could do
She lived all her life in this small Georgia town, reading her Bible and tilling the ground
When she leaves this world full of sorrow and pain, when she goes to Heaven she’ll go on a train
When Johnnie sees Jesus, she’ll be on a train
Ronnie saw Miss Johnnie one more time. He stopped by, sang her song to her, and gave her the lyrics. And then those trains rolled on and so did time. Lots of time. The day came when they moved Miss Johnnie to a nursing home in downtown Winder. Fate was kind, however. The home sat just across Highway 29 from the tracks. Said Ronnie, “From then until I left the railroad, when we came through Winder, no matter what time of day or night, I’d blow our horn loud and long because I knew she’d be listening.”
Oh sing that train song, Ronnie, … sing it through the year. Blow that horn, blow it loud for her to hear. Strum your guitar, strum it hard, cause Miss Johnnie, she’s wandered off to meet the Lord …
In 2005, many years after he left the railroad Ronnie learned Miss Johnnie O’Bryant had passed away. She rests in a cemetery in Winder. “I hope to go by her grave someday,” said Ronnie.
Well, at least her home and petunias stand across from the tracks. Right? Well, no. “I heard her little four-room house was torn down and an appliance store was built at that location,” said Ronnie, “but to us older railroad guys, Miss Johnnie O’Bryant will always be there.”
Yes, she will.
People pass on but their presence remains. A fragrance, a song, why even a sound brings them back. “Hey, buddy, do you hear that horn? Look a-yonder comin,’ comin’ down that railroad track. Hey, look a-yonder comin,’ comin’ down that railroad track, it’s Ronnie and the trainmen bringin’ Miss Johnnie back.”
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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”