Review: RIDING THE RAILS (American Experience)

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by Tony Frankel on January 14, 2021

in CD-DVD,Film


Being a lover of railroads, especially railroad travel, I still remember this absorbing documentary from PBS’s American Experience. Back in 1998, I learned of the teenagers who rode the rails during The Depression, and it left an indelible mark on me. That aching search. The adventure. Strangely, it has been hard to locate over the years, even though it was lauded with awards aplenty. Now, the superb film will be available to stream for the first time since it aired in 1998, beginning Tuesday, January 26, 2021 on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Comcast (USA & Canada).

Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds in RIDING THE RAILROADS. Photo by Lexy Lovell.

It’s especially important to watch this now given the despair and homelessness we are experiencing in 2021. The great Studs Terkel wrote about Riding the Rails, “I think it’s wonderful. I really think it’s very moving and beautiful, and I think it’s important. Riding the Rails is a natural. I’m astonished that it hasn’t been done through all these years. It’s one of the vital, terribly unreported sagas of the thirties. With today’s homeless kids, it’s a contemporary story of overwhelming importance. The analogy may awaken a public conscience that has been too long asleep. I thank you for making this movie. It’s terrific.”

John Vachon hopping on the railroad.

At the height of the Great Depression, more than 250,000 teenagers were living on the road in America. Many crisscrossed the country by hopping freight trains, although it was both dangerous and illegal. As with any good Robert Louis Stevenson or Jack London novel, these true-life stories fire the imagination. There is a great companion book, too.

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