The Ballad of Casey Jones

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This article is about the traditional folk song. For the song by Grateful Dead, see Casey Jones (song).
"The Ballad of Casey Jones"
Roud #3247
Music by Eddie Newton
Lyrics by Wallace Saunders, T. Lawrence Seibert
Written about 1900
Language English
Recorded by Joe Hickerson

"The Ballad of Casey Jones" is a traditional song about railroad engineer Casey Jones and his death at the controls of the train he was driving. It tells of how Jones and his fireman Sim Webb raced their locomotive to make up for lost time, but discovered another train ahead of them on the line, and how Jones remained on board to try to stop the train as Webb jumped to safety. It is song #3247 in the Roud Folk Song Index.

The song helped preserve the memory of Jones' feat down through the years in its 40+ versions and enhanced Casey’s legendary status to the extent that he has even become something of a mythological figure like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan to the uninformed. Books and pulp magazines about the railroad and its heroes helped to perpetuate his memory as well.

Soon after Casey’s death, the song was first sung by engine wiper and friend of Casey’s named Wallace Saunders to the tune of a popular song of the time known as "Jimmie Jones."[1] He was known to sing and whistle as he went about his work cleaning the steam engines. In the words of Casey’s wife: "Wallace's admiration of Casey was little short of idolatry. He used to brag mightily about Mr. Jones even when Casey was only a freight engineer." But Saunders never had his original version copyrighted, and thus there is no way of knowing precisely what words he sang.

As railroaders stopped in Canton, Mississippi they would pick up the song and pass it along. Soon it was a hit up and down the I.C. line. But it was up to others with a profit motive to take it and rework it for a nationwide audience. Illinois Central Engineer William Leighton appreciated the song's potential enough to tell his brothers Frank Leighton and Bert Leighton, who were vaudeville performers, about it. They took it and sang it in theaters around the country with a chorus they added. But apparently even they neglected to get it copyrighted.

Reportedly Saunders received a bottle of gin for the use of the song. Nothing more was heard from him after this time and he passed into history as the man who helped to make Casey Jones an integral part of American folklore.

Finally, with vaudeville performers T. Lawrence Seibert credited with the lyrics and Eddie Newton the music it was published and offered for sale in 1909 with the title "Casey Jones, The Brave Engineer". As their intent was to entertain, it was hailed on the cover of the sheet music as the "Greatest Comedy Hit In Years" and "The Only Comedy Railroad Song." This version was the one that was strenuously objected to by Casey's wife for making her appear to have been unfaithful to Casey. The offending lines read: "Mrs. Jones sat on her bed a sighing/Just received a message that Casey was dying/ Said go to bed children and hush your crying/Cause you got another papa on the Salt Lake line." This is similar to a line in the song "Duncan and Brady". She spent her remaining years refuting those lines, once saying "That devil hasn't shown up in 58 years!"

By World War I, dozens of versions had been published and millions of copies were sold, securing the memory of a new American folk hero. Poet Carl Sandburg called the song "Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer" the "greatest ballad ever written". Casey Jones figures in many railroad songs, such as "Freight Train Boogie", by The Delmore Brothers.

Recordings[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lomax, John A. and Alan Lomax. American Ballads and Folk Songs. (1934; reprint, New York: Dover, 1994), p. 34
  2. ^ http://letras.mus.br/grateful-dead/346751/
  • Ballad of Casey Jones
  • "A treasury of American Folklore," by B. A. Botkin, (American Legacy Press, NT, 1944) pp 241-246)
  • April 1932, Erie Railroad Magazine, vol 28, no. 2, p12