Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Steamboat Bill, Casey Jones and the Wreck of the Old ’97

Scenes from the Columbia Pictures
film ‘The Singing Brakeman,’ 1930
...The Persian capital, at night, cannot be spoken of as gay ... Scraps of music fluttered across the secretive walls; a distant tom-tom made itself more felt than heard, human voices sometimes mingled with nightingales; but these were ever so remote, like sounds in a dream. And, for one thrilling moment, I heard Billy Murray singing ‘Waiting for the Robert E. Lee’ on a wheezy phonograph...
— from ‘The Thousand and Second Night,’ by Robert Garland, in The Smart Set, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, September 1915.
When Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” was twelve years old he won a contest singing two Tin Pan Alley songs, ‘Steamboat Bill’ and ‘Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home.’ The original ‘Bill Bailey’ was advertised and sold as a ‘coon song.’ In later years Rodgers sang another well-known coon song with background vocals by the Carter Family cousins, a song commandeered by Teddy Roosevelt as martial background music to his vainglorious dash up San Juan Hill, ‘There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.’ (Teddy’s daughter Alice was reported to be fond of singing coon songs). Rodgers, until he had worked up enough material of his own, was also known to perform ‘Casey Jones’ and recorded ‘Ben Dewberry’s Final Run’ in 1928.

‘Steamboat Bill’ was copyright by Ren Shields and the Leighton Brothers in 1911. Variety advertisements touted the song by asking the question “Did you sing ‘Casey Jones’? If you did, send for the One that goes it one Better.”
Steamboat Bill steamin’ up the Mississippi
Tryin’ to beat the record of the Robert E. Lee
Steamboat Bill was a mythical riverboat captain but the “Robert E. Lee” was a historical reality. In 1870 the Robert E. Lee raced the rival Natchez steamboat 1200 miles from New Orleans, up the muddy Mississippi to St. Louis, in 3 days and 18 hours. Steamboat races were popular but perilous. Safety valve levers were tied or weighted down to increase steam pressure and the throttles opened wide, a practice which led to the blowing up of Steamboat Bill’s fanciful riverboat in the song.

The deep connection between the two songs was shown in January 1919, when Columbia Records released two sides by tenor duettists Irving and Jack Kaufman. Side one was ‘Casey Jones,’ side two was ‘Steamboat Bill.’
Sheet Music covers
‘Steamboat Bill’ begat ‘Casey Jones,’ which began a popular trend in topical songs based on real-life death and disaster. Train wrecks, fires, floods, crop-failures, murders, suicides and outlaw songs were recorded in the hundreds. Murder ballads and topical songs had always been around in the form of broadsides and dying confessions. The introduction of recording released the songs into popular music in the form of blues, jug band, and old time musicians. Tin Pan Alley songsters had a field day thinking up moralizing stanzas for the final verses. The historical Robert E. Lee had its place in the song sheets as well. ‘Waiting for the Robert E. Lee’ was copyrighted by F.A. Mills in May 1912, and would be recorded by Billy Murray, Dolly Connolly, Al Jolson, and others. A few years after the success of the songs ‘Steamboat Bill’ and ‘Casey Jones’ one Tin Pan Alley hack penned ‘Casey Jones went Down on the Robert E. Lee.’ The tune ‘Steamboat Bill’ was borrowed by songwriter Jimmy Driftwood for ‘Battle of New Orleans.’ 

Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill parodied ‘Steamboat Bill’ as ‘Scissor Bill,’ a pointed stab at the working man who did not want to talk about “your union dope,” a man satisfied unto death with “coffee and donut and a lousy old bed.” Scissor Bill’s prejudice holds him back from working in his own best interest
And Scissor Bill he says: “This country must be freed
From Niggers, Japs and Dutchmen and the gol durn Swede.”
He says that every cop would be a native son
If it wasn’t for the Irishman, the sunna fur gun.

Scissor Bill, the “foreigners” is cussin’;
Scissor Bill, he says: “I hate a Coon”;
Scissor Bill is down on everybody
The Hottentots, the bushmen and the man in the moon.
Buster Keaton starred in his feature film ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’ first shown to the public on May 12, 1928, and Mickey Mouse was the rodent star of Walt Disney’s animation film ‘Steamboat Willie,’ first shown on November 18, the same year. The song remains a standard with country music and easy-listening audiences.

‘Casey Jones’ was first published in 1909 as “the only comedy railroad song.” John Luther Jones of Cayce, Kentucky, was engineer on the “Southern Cannonball” highballing from Memphis to Vaughan, Mississippi on April 29, 1900. That foggy, rainy night Jones was behind schedule and speeding at over 70 mph when he plowed into a stalled freight train extending onto the main track. The fireman jumped clear but Jones crushed and scalded body was pulled from the wreckage.

Niagara Falls Gazette, December 10, 1926
The composer was a black man named Wallace ‘Wash’ Saunders, an engine ‘wiper’ on the Illinois Central railroad, but as was usual in those times the song was stolen by white composers from Tin Pan Alley. Elmo Scott Watson claimed the song made over ten million dollars for the thieves.  Saunders had set the song to an older railroad worker’s chant known as ‘Jimmie Jones.’
Saunders always sang while working and made up his own songs. He knew Casey Jones, the engineer, well. This inspired him to make up a song about the now celebrated accident in which Jones was involved.

This he sang around the roundhouse. It had such a strong appeal it was soon being sung by railroad workers throughout the South. It was never printed and consequently never copyrighted. Therefore, though the song became one of the greatest hits of all time, Saunders never profited from it financially. 
Earl J. Morris, California Eagle, May 9, 1946, p.21.
In 1914 Mrs. Casey Jones (“The Brave Engineer’s Widow”) published ‘Casey Jones’ as her own composition. She (unless someone else wrote under her name) also published ‘My Rose of Old Pekin,’ ‘At the Panama-Pacific Fair,’ and ‘Night Was Made For Love.’ Mrs. Janie (Brady) Jones recalled Jones creative touch with the train-whistle
You see Casey established a sort of trademark for himself by his inimitable method of blowing a whistle. It was a kind of long, drawn out note that he created. It started softly, then rising, then dying away to almost a whisper. People living along the Illinois Central right-of-way between Jackson and Walter Valley would turn over in their beds late at night and say, “There goes Casey Jones,” as he passed by. 
‘All About Casey Jones, Oswego Palladium Times, May 11, 1928, p.6. 
‘Casey Jones — Union Scab’ was wobbly bard Joe Hill’s contribution. Hill was mowed down by a firing squad at Salt Lake City, Utah, in November 19, 1915. His last word was reported to be “Fire!” Hill inspired a famous ‘folk’ song of his own.

On July 24, 1953, a marker was dedicated to Casey at Vaughan, Mississippi, on the spot where the Illinois central Cannonball Express was wrecked. Hundreds of railroaders and railroad fans showed up along with Casey Jones 81 year old widow and the fireman, a 79 year old Negro named Sim Webb. Conspicuous by their absence were officials of the Illinois Central Railroad.
Railroad history rolled back half a century. The personal whistle of Engineer Jones – engineers transferred their whistles from locomotive to locomotive in those days – was here. It was rigged up to steam and its lonesome whip-poor-will call sounded for the first time since Casey pulled the cord desperately in the last few seconds before the crash. Howard Robertson of Bonne Terre, Mo., owns the Jones whistle.
The Cannonball’s bell has long been a fixture at Vaughan – in the belfry of the Black Jack Methodist church. The sexton tolled the bell and railroaders nodded approval at the authentic touch. 
Casey Jones Last Ride Described,’ Schenectady Gazette, July 25, 1953.
Bluesman Furry Lewis recorded a lyrical nightmare version under the title ‘Cassie Jones’ (Part 1 and part 2), on August 29, 1928.
Mister Casey run his engine to a mile of the place,
Number Four stabbed him in the face.
The deputy told Casey, “Well, you must leave town.”
“Believe to my soul I’m Alabama bound,
Alabama bound, I believe to my soul I’m Alabama bound.”
Another famous train wreck song was ‘The Wreck of the Old 97’ composed by Virginian David Graves George, “self-styled hill-billy and former railroad man.” Graves sued the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1930 over ownership of the song and won. Royalties were estimated in the millions. Victor said the company had at one time advertised in newspapers for the composer to come forward and were deluged with mail. One claimant, guitarist Henry Whitter, said he had composed the song and recorded it for the General Phonograph Company in 1923, sometime before the Victor recording by Vernon Dalhart appeared on August 13, 1924. Dalhart would come to specialize in disaster songs, recording titles like ‘The Freight Wreck at Altoona’ (1926) and ‘Wreck of the Royal Palm’ (1927).
David George Graves and his wife,
photographed in Detroit, Michigan
In the end Graves was awarded $65,295 and died January 23, 1948, at age 82. Folklorist Robert W. Gordon thought that Fred Lewey and Charles W. Noell, both from North Carolina had a hand in writing the ballad. It is uncertain which lyrics were Graves’ anyway since it was never published as sheet music.
“You know,” he [Graves] said, puffing on a battered pipe, “we used to do right smart of singing years ago. And I was always making rhymes and singing them at corn shuckings and the like.”
George, who was in charge of a coal and water station on the Southern railroad’s line when ‘Old 97’ plunged off the tracks killing the engineer and his “black greasy foreman,” incidentally laying the basis for the George fortune, said he wrote the ballad in the pump house at Franklin Junction a few days after the wreck.  
‘ ‘Wreck of 97’ Worth Million to its Writer,’ Binghampton Press, December 18, 1934.
The Binghampton Press claimed this famous scene
of the wreck was owned by David Graves George
‘The Wreck of the Old 97’ tells of the crash of mail train no. 97 outside Danville, Virginia, on September 27, 1903. Nine people died when the train jumped the track and plunged down a ravine. Henry Whitter, Vernon Dalhart, Clayton McMichen and the Skillet Lickers recorded the song. The flip side of the Skillet Lickers (with Riley Puckett vocal) was ‘Casey Jones’. ‘The Wreck of the Old 97’ ended with
He was going down the grade making ninety miles an hour
When the whistle broke into a scream,
He was found in a wreck with his hand on the throttle
And scalded to death with the steam.
I recall a popular schoolyard version from the 1950s
She was goin’ down the mountain doing ninety miles an hour
When the chain on her bicycle broke,
They found her at the bottom with a sprocket up her ass
And her left tit punctured by a spoke.
This schoolboy version, like old-time folk and blues song fragments, was probably passed from State to State (or Province to Province in Canada) until its original source was lost to history.

Happy Days; A Paper for Young and Old,
Vol. XXXIV, September 16, 1911


  1. outdid yourself on this one...if that is at all possible!
    Love it! Thanks again...Joe

  2. I'm with Joe on this. Imagine what a fine book this blog would make.