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The Ballad of Casey Jones
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Casey Jones, a Classic Train Song from Family Garden TrainsTM

"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.

After the accident, the railroad blamed Casey for ignoring warnings, including a flagman waving a lantern, and charges placed on the track which would have exploded, giving audible warning of the danger ahead. But Sim Webb refuted that story. He was in the locomotive, too, and he had seen no fireman or heard no charges. My take is that someone on the IC had "dropped the ball," and it was easier to blame the victim than whoever had really caused the accident. Or maybe there were insurance issues. Eventually the IC stopped making the claim, though I don't know if the original accident report was ever retracted.

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 or maiming everyone on the train.

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 day 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.

Wallace Saunder's portrait, as displayed in the Casey Jones Museum.  Click to go to the museum's home pageThe Song - Wallace Saunders, an African-American friend of Casey's who worked in the roundhouse, soon made up a song about the incident. Casey was neither 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. In case you wondered, Saunders never received a penny for his efforts.

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.

Note for 2014 - I've updated many things on this page, including adding the New Christy Minstrel's version of the song near the bottom. Back about 1964, Randy Sparks wrote a whole new song to celebrate this hero. Though the arrangement may sound dated today, it has a very catchy tune and clever lyrics. And it's worth remembering that, when the Minstrels' version came out, the original "Casey Jones" song was being treated as a joke or children's song by everybody but folk musicians, and the folk musicians were ignoring it altogether.

Where's Johnny? - Also, since I first posted this page, some music or record company has had Johnny Cash's excellent versions of this song literally scrubbed from the Internet. The studio recording is no longer available from Amazon, and countless YouTube videos have been taken down. The sad part of this is that the purge removed several live performances that have never been available on any recording, and are never likely to be. My guess is that somebody with money is planning to put out a new collection and they want to make certain that nothing even resembling a Johnny Cash version of Casey Jones is available anywhere. Which is my way of saying, if you have a recording of Johnny Cash singing this song, guard it with your life.

All is not lost, however, I just tracked down the source of one of my favorite Johnny Cash "Casey Jones" video - an old television special that was available on DVD for a while. Though out of print, used copies are available Click to see this video on Amazon.on Amazon. If you get to that page, scroll down to see my review and decide whether it will be a good investment for you or not.

    Come all you rounders if you want to hear
    The story of a brave engineer.
    Casey Jones was the rounder's name.
    On the "six-eight" wheeler, boys, he won his fame.
    The caller called Casey at half past four.
    He kissed his wife at the station door.
    He mounted to the cabin with the orders in his hand,
    And he took his farewell trip to that promis'd land.

    Casey Jones--mounted to his cabin,Click to learn about our newsletter for Americana and related music styles
    Casey Jones--with his orders in his hand,
    Casey Jones--mounted to his cabin,
    And he took his farewell trip to that promis'd land.

    He looked at his water and his water was low.
    He looked at his watch and his watch was slow.
    He turned to his fireman and this is what he said,
    "Boy, we're going to reach Frisco, but we'll all be dead."
    He turned to the fireman, said "Shovel on your coal,
    Stick your head out the window, see the drivers roll.
    I'm gonna drive her 'til she leaves the rail,
    For I'm eight hours late by that Western Mail."

    Casey Jones--I'm gonna drive her,
    Casey Jones--til she leaves the rail,
    Casey Jones--I'm gonna drive her,
    For I'm eight hours late by that Western Mail.

    When he pulled up that Reno hill
    He whistled for the crossing with an awful shrill
    The switchman knew by the engine's moan
    That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones
    When he was within six miles of the place
    There No. 4 stared him straight in the face
    He turned to his fireman, said "Jim, you'd better jump
    For there's two locomotives that are going to bump."

    Casey Jones--two locomotives
    Casey Jones--going to bump
    Casey Jones--two locomotives
    For there's two locomotives that are going to bump.

MP3 clips from Amazon

    Casey Jones - Pete Seeger
    In this very early solo recording, Pete sings the song "straight" - later he rewrote the lyrics as a union song called "Casey Jones, the Union Scab." That version isn't here because it's not really about trains.
    Casey Jones - Spike Jones
    A 40's small-ensemble swing arrangement in which Casey is a WWII bombardier, not a locomotive engineer.
    Casey Jones - Tom Rush
    This verion has a nice up-tempo folksy sound. It includes verses borrowed from other train songs.
    Casey Jones - Mississippi John Hurt
    If you're a fan of traditional finger-picked guitar blues, take a listen to this guitar part. Yes, there's fret buzz, but there's also a raw energy that is seldom equaled.
    Casey Jones - Craig Duncan
    A very nice, traditional instrumental arrangement with fiddle and flat-picked guitar solos.
    Casey Jones - The Jubilaires
    Southern Gospel meets the Mills Brothers in this finger-snapping arrangement.
    Casey Jones - Billy Murray
    A rare 1912 wax cylinder recording. This represents the way the song sounded back when it became a huge hit, long before the days of flat records.
    Casey Jones - John D. and Lee Mounce
    An authentic 22-second harmonica solo "captured" in the Ozarks. I think that 99% of the recording is in the clip, so Amazon may have given you a freebie on this one.

You-Tube Videos of This Song

Surprisingly, there are relatively few videos of this song with music worth listening to. The Johnny Cash video we had originally posted here has been withdrawn, along with almost every other Johnny Cash version of Casey Jones we've ever come across. The version we have now is from a live performance on a European television show. The rest are even stranger. But this stuff is cyclic. In a few months or years, there could be several more good versions online.

Click to see messages in the Train Song Discussion Forum.New for 2014! Train Song Discussion Forum

There is now a Train Songs section on our Creek Don't Rise Forum Page. Here's where we post information about updates and information that doesn't really fit anywhere on the Classic Train Songs site(yet).

When we get a question about train songs, we post it there, so other people can see it and respond if they want to. Of course, if you're signed up, you can post questions and replies yourself.

If you want to jump to the forum to see it and read other folks' posts, click here.

If you want to sign up to add to the discussions, click: here. It's a manual signup, because it's the only way we can block hundreds of robospam attempts a week, so it may take us a couple days to get you signed in, but once you are in, you can post in any of the forums.

Click here to return to the Classic Train Songs page.

New for 2014! And Now For Something Completely Different! - New Christy Minstrels' "Casey Jones"

Back in the days of the folk revival, one problem with folk songs is that most of them were - by definition - public domain. So you could come across a great song, sing the heck out of it, and make it just popular enough for someone who was already famous to record his own version and have a really big hit. How many of you remember Carl Sandburg's version of "Sloop John B"? Or Pete Seeger's? Or even the Kingston Trio's version? Sandburg published it, Pete brought it to public attention, and the Kingston Trio put it on an album, but the folks who made real money on it were the Beach Boys. Even for popular groups, there was always the danger of someone doing it better and having the song become "their song."

Click to go to Amazon's listing of several tracks from this album.Several "folk artists" of the early 1960s solved the problem by writing totally new versions of popular folk songs, versions that they would own from start to finish. Singer-songwriter Randy Sparks wrote several such "reboots" for the New Christy Minstrels, a group he founded that had big pop radio hits with "Green Green," "Saturday Night," and "This Land is Your Land." The Ministrel's 1964 album Land of Giants included songs about legendary American heroes like Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Casey Jones. Sparks' version of Casey Jones is an entirely different song from the folk version, but it's catchy and fun. Back in 1964, it was fresh, something you couldn't really say about Wallace Saunder's poor, dog-eared "folk" version.

The Minstrels' performances were meticulously arranged, rehearsed, costumed, scripted, and even choreographed. In other words, they were more "musical theater" than "music group" in the contemporary folk or pop music sense. That was intentional - Sparks wanted to put on an evening's entertainment patterned after the old-time ministrel shows without the Stephen Foster songs and Jim Crow humor. Eventually, however, the New Christy Minstrels were eclipsed by acts that put on a better show of authenticity and relevance.

To modern ears, some of the old Minstrel tracks sound more like the Lawrence Welk singers with banjos than a legitimate folk group. If you've seen A Mighty Wind , you've see a modern parody of their approach. But in their day, they had gold records and many months on the pop charts over a several year period. And for anyone under eighty or over forty, when you think of the song "This Land is Your Land" the first version you hear in your head is probably their version.

In 1964, I was twelve years old, and the original "Casey Jones" song had gone from vaudeville hit to lampoon version to children's song without ever being taken seriously - believe it or not - by the folk community. In fact, it wasn't until I heard Johnny Cash sing it years later, that I realized it was about a real person's heroic death in what was once a romanticized and necessary but dangerous profession. So Randy Sparks' song, which was relatively lighthearted nevertheless seemed more like a song for adults than the original tune. In fact, when I stumbled across it recently, I realized that I still remembered almost every word, guitar lick, and key change. These are the words as far as I can make them out. If I ever stumble across the old LP, I'll check the liner notes for an update.

"Casey Jones" by Randy Sparks, as performed by The New Christy Minstrels

    I'll tell you a story all about John Luther,
    Well, the Joneses pride and joy.
    How he come down here from Caycee town,
    He was a Tennessee mountain boy.

    He drove the Illinois Central Line down in the cabin
    On the Memphis Cannonball
    And you can set your clock on Casey's whistle
    You could hear his fireman call.

    Casey Jones, Casey Jones
    High stepping on down the line.
    You could hear his whistle for a hundred miles,
    Here comes Casey, and he's making up time.

    Well he climbed aboard at the Memphis Station,
    And the rain was falling down.
    The night was dark, and from the yard
    You couldn't see the bright lights of town.
    Number 638 began to growl like thunder

    And the drivers began to roll
    And the old conductor set his head out the winder
    And he hollered "Bless my Soul".

    I swear it's:Click to learn about our newsletter for Americana and related music styles
    Casey Jones, Casey Jones
    High stepping on down the line.
    You could hear his whistle for a hundred miles,
    Here comes Casey, and he's making up time.

    It was on that grade down upon Mississippi,
    On a side track clear by the main
    Casey looked out the winder and upon his life,
    He saw the cars of a big freight train.
    Well he told his fireman if he don't jump
    You know it's gonna be a terrible ride.
    And he laid on the brake,
    And he blew that whistle,
    And that's how Casey died.

    You know it's:
    Casey Jones, Casey Jones
    High stepping all over this land.
    That train was longer than a hundred miles.
    Casey died with a whistle in his hand.

    Casey Jones, Casey Jones
    High stepping on down the line.
    You could hear his whistle for a hundred miles,
    There goes Casey, and he's making up time.

    Ballad of Casey Jones - New Christy Minstrels
    - Randy Sparks' version
    Click to here a sample clip of this song.
    Click to see this song on

By the way, as of this writing (August, 2014) Randy Sparks was still alive and well and planning on touring with a current lineup of the Ministrels until November of 2014, after which the word "retirement" keeps coming up. For more information, please click here. Click here to return to the Classic Train Songs page.

Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel. Click to see Paul's music home page

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