"The Great Rock Island Route", also known as "Wabash Cannonball", is the title of an American folk song that describes the scenic beauty and predicaments of the Wabash Cannonball Express as it traveled on the Great Rock Island train route. Over many years, this popular song's music has remained unchanged while the verses have been updated by song artists.
As early as 1882, sheet music titled "The Great Rock Island Route" was credited to J. A. Roff. This version and all subsequent versions contain a variation of this chorus:
Now listen to the jingle, and the rumble, and the roar,
As she dashes thro' the woodland, and speeds along the shore,
See the mighty rushing engine, hear her merry bell ring out,
As they speed along in safety, on the "Great Rock-Island Route."
A rewritten version by William Kindt appeared in 1904 under the title "Wabash Cannon Ball".
The Carter Family made one of the first recordings of the song in 1929, though it was not released until 1932. Another popular version was recorded by Roy Acuff in 1936. The Acuff version is one of the fewer than 40 all-time singles to have sold 10 million (or more) physical copies worldwide.
It is a signature song of the Indiana State University Marching Sycamores and the Purdue All-American Marching Band as the ISU and Purdue campuses are adjacent to the Mighty Wabash River. It is also associated with the Stephen F. Austin State University Lumberjack Marching Band, the Kansas State University Marching Band, the Texas Tech University Goin' Band from Raiderland, and the University of Texas Longhorn Band. It was also used as the theme song by USS Wabash.
The song "The Wabash Cannonball" is part of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list. It is the oldest song on the list.
In addition to The Carter Family's 1929 recording and Roy Acuff's 1936 recording, many hillbilly artists recorded "The Wabash Cannonball" during the Great Depression era of the 1930s and 1940s and the song was also recorded by Piedmont Blues legend Blind Willie McTell. Bing Crosby recorded the song for his album "Bing Crosby Sings The Great Country Hits". The song increased in popularity during this time.
There are many theories of the origin of "The Wabash Cannonball". Utah Phillips states that hobos imagined a mythical train called the "Wabash Cannonball" which was a "death coach" that appeared at the death of a hobo to carry his soul to its reward. The song was then created with the lyrics and music telling the story of the train. When the hobos learned of this train, they called her the "Wabash Cannonball" and said that every station in America had heard her whistle.
Another story states that the song is based on a tall tale in which Cal S. Bunyan, Paul Bunyan's brother, constructed a railroad known as the Ireland, Jerusalem, Australian & Southern Michigan Line. After two months of service, the 700-car train was traveling so fast that it arrived at its destination an hour before its departure. Finally, the train took off so fast that it rushed into outer space and where, for that all is known, it is still traveling.
In the wake of the song's popularity, the Wabash Railroad renamed its daytime express run between Detroit and St. Louis as the Wabash Cannon Ball in 1949, the only actual train to bear the name, which it carried until the creation of Amtrak in 1971, when it was discontinued. However, the train was named after the song, not the other way around. On October 26 and 27, 2013, Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society's Nickel Plate Road 765, in conjunction with the Norfolk Southern Railway's "21st Century Steam" program, pulled a 225-mile round-trip excursion, retracing the Cannon Ball's former route between Fort Wayne and Lafayette, Indiana.
A roller coaster at the now-defunct Opryland USA theme park was titled after the song as well. It was operated from 1975 to 1997. In 1998, after Opryland's closing, the double cork-screw coaster was relocated to Old Indiana Fun-n-Water Park (Thorntown, Indiana, United States). In 2003, it was moved into storage. The coaster specs: Length 1,200 ft (370 m), Height 70 ft (21 m), Speed 50 mph (80 km/h), with double cork-screw style inversions.
- A Tribute to William Jennings Bryan
- "Courts" instead of "Hearts"
- "Glory" or "Dixie" instead of "Victory"
- "Lonesome" instead of "merry" hobos
- "Daddy Claxton", "Danny Claxton", "Daddy Clayton", or "Boston Blackie" instead of "Daddy Cleaton"
- "When his earthly days are over and the curtains 'round him fall" in the next-to-last line of the song
- "While" or "We're" instead of "You're", in the final line of the chorus
- "Rumble" instead of "Rumor" in the chorus.
- "Riding through the jungles" (i.e., hobo encampments) instead of "Glides along the woodland".
- There are several known versions of the second and final lines of the first stanza. Some believe that "she's the 'boes accommodation called the Wabash Cannonball" was most likely the original final line of the first stanza, even though it is probably the least popular today. One common variation calls her a "streamlined combination".
- There are alternative versions in which the second and third stanzas are changed significantly, including the 1966 recording by Johnny Cash.
Many other live and recorded versions occur in the twentieth century:
- Hank Snow - (d. 1999) a star on RCA Victor for 47 years, recorded a totally different version with the line " As they ride the rods and brake beams – on the Wabash cannonball" as the final line of the chorus, amongst many changes made by the long time Canadian singer.
- Hank Thompson, Roger Miller, Boxcar Willie and Willie Nelson also did their own versions.
- In 1968, Jerry Reed included it on his LP album " Nashville Underground"
- Various "Blue grass" versions were recorded by Ernest Tubb, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
- Female artists with versions include Wanda Jackson (1966) and Bonnie Owens (1967) – see their record catalogues.
- Early other version more similar to the great "Rock Island Route" are recorded by Blind Willie McTell, which lead this traditional song in another direction, if you listen to his version.
- Claire Lynch and her Front Porch String Band did an arrangement in the 1970s that is a more progressive Bluegrass version, played variously with guitar, mandolin and bass; guitar, banjo, and bass, and in the Claire Lynch Band "Crowd Favorites" album (2007), an exquisite acoustic version with Jim Hurst (guitar), Jason Thomas (mandolin), and Missy Raines (bass)
- Instrumental versions can be found by Chet Atkins, and also sheet music sold by many, including Rex Griffin (1939) if you should look among the hundreds of covers done last century.
- In the 1980 film Melvin and Howard, the lead character Melvin Dummar teaches Howard Hughes a song he wrote. The song, "Santa's Souped-Up Sleigh", is set to the melody of "Wabash Cannonball".
Hank Williams is also supposed to have written a little known song called " The California Zephyr" now not often heard, to imitate and replace the song- because it was reported he did not like it. There are some similarities among this, and many other train songs.
Use in Collegiate Sports
The Wabash Cannonball (arranged by Joel Leach) is known as the unofficial "second" fight song of Kansas State University, having been played since the late 1960s. It was the only piece of sheet music rescued from the KSU music department in the Nichols Hall fire of 1968, and grew in popularity with students and fans. The Kansas State University Marching Band says that "the Wabash Cannonball has come to represent the survival of the underdog in the hearts and minds of all true K-State fans, and has earned a secure place in the KSUMB's history and traditions." Currently Kansas State is the prime contributing player of the song and most noted with Big 12 fans and spectators. Fans rock back and forth to the song while it is played.
The University of Texas Longhorn Band plays the song at the beginning of every fourth quarter during football season. The tradition began when Texas was in the Southwest Conference and Kansas State University was in the Big 8 Conference. Texas band director Vincent R. DiNino once asked football coach Darrell K. Royal if he had any songs he would like to hear the Longhorn Band play. His response was that they didn't play enough country music and that he would like to hear Wabash Cannonball. "Band rivalry" has developed since both schools joined the Big 12 Conference.
At Stephen F. Austin State University, the Twirl-O-Jacks traditionally perform to the tune as played by the Lumberjack Marching Band at the beginning of each football game. The band has also been known to play excerpts from the song during various sporting events.
In 1951, Jesse Rogers adapted "Wabash Cannonball" into "Jukebox Cannonball" by retaining the original melody but replacing it with a new set of lyrics. Many recordings of this song were made in the early 1950s, primarily by artists from the New York-Pennsylvania region, including Rogers himself, Ray Whitley, and Rex Zario. Bill Haley and The Saddlemen (later known as The Comets) also had a minor hit with the song in 1952, which was considered an early example of rockabilly. Haley re-recorded the song in 1979.
Big Wheel Cannonball
A version recorded by truckin' music/country star Dick Curless is an ode to truckers.
Tennessee Ernie Ford
The Moody Brothers
Robert Fripp & The League Of Crafty Guitarists
The Dustbowl Balladeer's "Grand Coulee Dam" — one of several songs he wrote about the largest concrete structure in the United States — is a rework of the "Wabash Cannonball".
Guthrie also composed another song—"Farmer-Labor Train"—with the same melody. On August 29, 1942, he performed "The Farmer-Labor Train" on the AFL- and CIO-sponsored 15-minute weekly radio show "Labor for Victory" on NBC Radio.
In 1948, he transformed the "Wabash Cannonball" again into "The Wallace-Taylor Train" for the 1948 Progressive National Convention, which nominated former U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace for president. Alistair Cooke noted some verses:
Lumberjacks and teamsters,
And sailors from the sea,
And there's fighting boys from Texas
And the hills of Tennessee,
There's miners from Kentucky
And there's fishermen from Maine,
All a-ridin' with us
On this Wallace-Taylor train.
Dizzy Dean, who had been a talented, colorful pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and other teams, and had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, often sang verses of the song while broadcasting the Major League Baseball Game of the Week in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The legendary Bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson and his son Merle included a rhapsodic version of The Wabash Cannon Ball on the live album Doc Watson on Stage in 1982, reissued on CD in 1990.
Utah Phillips released this song and talked about it in his album/songbook "Starlight on the Rails" (2005).
Chuck Mead covered this song on his 2012 album, "Back at the Quonset Hut"
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