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The Ballad of Casey Jones
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains™

Casey Jones, a Classic Train Song from Family Garden Trains™

"The Ballad of Casey Jones" was written about a real locomotive engineer, John Luther "Casey" Jones. He was already well known among Mississippi railroaders for various exploits before he died in the famous train crash of April 30, 1900.

The Wreck - Jones' final run occurred when he took over for a sick coworker, driving the llinois Central's "New Orleans Special" passenger train from Memphis toward Canton. Though Jones and his fireman Sim Webb left Memphis 95 minutes late, he was only five minutes behind as he approached Vaughan, Mississippi. Near Vaughan, Jones expected to pass a local train that was supposed to be on a siding, since the "New Orleans Special" had the right-of-way. But unknown to Jones that night, there were two trains on the siding, and their combined length was too long for the siding. Four freight cars and a caboose were right in Jones' path as he steamed around a curve.

The amazing thing is not that Casey died, or even that he died trying to stop the train, but that he slowed it down so much that none of his passengers were seriously injured, a remarkable feat of skill. Remember, this was before steel-framed coaches. Many train crashes in similar situations had resulted in the wooden coaches driving into each other like a collapsing telescope, killing nearly every one on the train and badly injuring the rest.

Fortunately for the passengers Casey, was able to slow the train dramatically before it struck. In addition, the frames of the caboose and the first two freight cars (loaded with hay and corn respectively) were somewhat forgiving, further easing the effect of the impact. Unfortunately for Casey, the next car was loaded with lumber and far less forgiving. And when one of the largest locomotives of its age jumps the track, even at an estimated 35 mph, you don't walk away.

This drawing of the locomotive, taken from a U.S. Postal Service commemorative cancellation stamp, shows the structure of the engine, although it's hard to see the sqare-shouldered Belpaire firebox that, despite its small 'footprint' provided plenty of heat to power the massive drivers. This engine was built for speed AND power. Click for a bigger drawing.The Locomotive - Casey's favorite locomotive on the Illinois Central was a Consolidation (2-8-0), number 638. But the night he died, he was driving a coworker's favorite Ten-Wheeler (4-6-0), number 382. This is worth noting because the first printed version of the song calls Casey's locomotive a "six-eight wheeler." This phrase makes no sense to railroaders. It may have been a bowdlerized version of six-thirty-eight, Casey's favorite locomotive. But if you want the song to make sense to railroaders, you could sing "a big ten-wheeler." A few folks actually sing it that way. Well, maybe two.

The Song - Wallace Saunders, a friend of Casey's who worked in the roundhouse, soon made up a song about the incident. Casey was not the first nor the last locomotive engineer to go to "glory" pulling on the brakes, but Saunders' song put him on the path to another kind of glory.

Saunders' song got around and was apparently sung in several vaudeville shows. Eventually the vaudeville team of T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton published their version, which they billed as a comedy song. They "juiced up" the comedy aspect by adding a verse about Casey's widow telling her children not to mind Casey's death, because they have "another papa on the Salt Lake Line." Mrs. Jones refuted that rumor to her death, and most children's albums leave that verse off, but there you have it.

The popularity of "The Ballad of Casey Jones" is an anomaly among railroad songs - it didn't start out by becoming spreading through the working and disadvantaged classes, then gradually creeping into public attention with the rise of Folk, Country, or (in England) Skiffle music, say, sung by "Boxcar Willie," or the "Singing Brakeman," or Hudie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. Rather it stormed the country's music halls, and was often as not performed by early 20th-century pop stars with an orchestra or an early jazz ensemble playing in the background. The old wax cylinder recording by Billy Murray below shows a typical music hall treatment of the song.

The most often performed versions today resemble Seibert and Newton's version, although several folk singers, perhaps following a folk tradition observed by poet Carl Sandburg, tell the story to a modified tune with several verses "borrowed" from other, lesser-known railroad songs. Tom Rush's version below is an example of that tradition.

On the other hand, the song has certain suffered from overexposure - it's been bowdlerized, satirized, rewritten and (some would say) butchered more than all other railroad songs put together.

On many of these pages, I provide a link to an Amazon search page that you can use to find other performances of the song, but in this case, it doesn't work out very well. Turns out that the song's popularity has caused a host of non-family-friendly offshoots, including a rock act with explicit lyrics as well as several rewrites of the song that involve drug smuggling, "scabbing" and other, er, non-railroading topics. In other words, a link to Amazon's Mp3 search page would not be family friendly. So on this page, I've tried to add the best or at least the most interesting versions I could find.

I was also able to find a copy of Seibert and Newton's sheet music, so if you want to download it click on the following links: page 1, page 2, and page 3.

If you have a favorite version, or a favorite performer that I've left out, please contact me and I'll try to track them down. Also, if you don't see the link for a particular song, hit refresh - it seems like Amazon can never populate all of the links at the same time.

MP3 clips from Amazon

You-Tube Videos of This Song

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