Saturday, April 30, 2011

His farewell trip to that promised land

On this day 111 years ago a passenger train, with the engineer John Luther "Casey" Jones driving, rounded a blind curve. Ahead of him, and only partly off the main track because of a blown air hose, was a stopped freight train. 

Casey, who's train was traveling at 75mph, yelled at his fireman to jump from the train as he reversed the throttle and applied the airbrakes. He could not stop in time. His locomotive smashed the freight's caboose and plowed through a car carrying hay and another loaded with corn before derailing.

Casey was killed in the accident. However, aside from his bruised fireman who had jumped from the train, there were no major injuries among the train's passengers. People attributed the lack of other fatalities to Casey staying in the cab and giving his life to slow the train as much as possible before the collision.

His obituary would have long since been forgotten, but a friend of his, a black engine wiper named Wallace Saunders, wrote lyrics he called "The Ballad of Casey Jones" and set it to the tune of the then popular song "Jimmie Jones". It made its way to vaudeville, and was shortly after published and recorded. 

There are a lot of versions of the lyrics. You can read some of them at Trainweb. He was generally portrayed as a hero in them, although cheap shots were sometimes taken at the widow he left behind. There was also a version written by Union members who portrayed him as a scab riding to hell on a death trap of a train.

The song has been widely recorded. If you search YouTube you can find versions recorded as early as 1910, the Scab version, a Johnny Cash cover of it and even one sung by Buster Keaton of all people. The version I embedded above is a very lively version with wonderful vocals by the Jubalaires from 1948.

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