|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
Big Indoor Trains(tm), and Creek Don't Rise(tm)
The Wabash Cannonball, a Classic Train Song from Family Garden Trains™
The Wabash river flows from Northwest Ohio across Indiana to the border of Illinois. There was also a series of railroad-based businesses with Wabash in the name, including the Wabash Railroad (1889-1915), the Wabash Railway (1915-1931), and the PRR-controlled Wabash Railroad (1941-1960). None of those entities, as far as I can determine, ever ran a train called the "Wabash Cannonball" until after the song became famous. In fact, the first published version of this song had the lyrics "Great Rock Island Route" where later versions inserted the words "Wabash Cannonball." So it's possible that the song came before the title, and no one really knows how, when, why, or even if the name changed. There is no question, however, that "Wabash Cannonball" sounds better than "Great Rock Island Route."
Of course no train from the American heartland ever went to both shores, or to all of the cities named in some versions of the song. Several versions describe the train from the hobos' point of view, which has lead some historians to hypothesize that the "Wabash Cannonball" was sort of hobo "tall tale," like the "Big Rock Candy Mountain."
Run Through the Jungle - The "hobo" versions have the train running through the "jungle," which indicates the "hobo jungle," the makeshift shantytowns that hobos often built near railroad yards.
The Tribute Verse - Several versions have a tribute verse to "Daddy Cleton," or "Daddy Claxton," or other names that are entirely different. The hobo versions seem to identify the person being toasted as a late, great hobo. Other versions have the person as being remembered in the courtrooms, which would make more sense if the fellow was, say, a lawyer.
Roy Acuff has pointed out that he has ancestors named Claxton, so he thinks "Daddy Claxton" might be some uncle of his that was a lawyer. Unfortunately, the name "Daddy Claxton" found its way to the song long before the song found its way to the Acuffs, so the chronology doesn't seem to support Roy's hypothesis.
Victory or Dixie - The last line of the tribute verse includes the phrase "carry him home to victory," but southern singers tend to sing it "carry him home to Dixie," a choice that I included in the version below. (I'm not from the south, but "Dixie" just works better.)
In other choices, I tended toward the earlier wording choices and toward the wording choices that emphasized the majesty of the locomotive, "rumble" versus "rumor," "whistle's call" versus "hobo's call," etc. If you grew up with another version, please accept my apologies and feel free to sing this song any way you want to.
If you don't know the tune and would like to see it on a score, please click here.
Also, if you have a favorite train song, or a favorite performer that I've left out, please contact me and I'll try to track him down. Also, if you don't see the link for a clip in the table below, hit the "refresh" button on your browser. Sometimes Amazon has trouble populating all of the links at the same time.
From the coast of the Atlantic, to the broad Pacific shore,
MP3 clips from Amazon
You-Tube Videos of This SongI used to have a bunch of videos that you could click on and watch straight from this page. However, someone will get kicked off of YouTube for an unrelated reason and they would take all the videos that person ever posted down, and all the links will break. So now I am just posting ordinary links that will take you directly to YouTube. My apologies for any inconvenience, but these links are a lot easier to maintain.
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Reader ResponsePeter S. Chamberlain writes: I might have known that Daddy Claxton either didn't exist or cannot be traced, but I'm deeply disappointed, even though I always knew that the Wabash Cannonball "train that went everywhere" was a folk legend older than the train that last used the name. But I'd still place a small sentimental bet that there's a grain of truth behind that line about the courts of Alabam. Of course, this started or evolved in the old oral tradition like the other song about which Mother Mabelle Carter discovered after years and years that "sweet tern" as recorded the way she had learned it was supposed to be "fern". You can't, and never could, get there from here, but, one Christmas vacation while I was at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville in the early sixties, they decided to break us of riding the over-packed Louisville & Nashville passenger train (called the Pan American southbound and I forget now what northbound, each of which had their own song, that I had taken from Nashville to Cincinnatti and then another train to Pittsburgh, PA, so the normal four or five hours to Knoxville, TN where they were to pick up the dining car sort of got interrupted and blocked before we got there, sending us down to the Alabama coast, with a long wait on the middle of a long trestle so we couldn't get off to get anything, then back to Cincinnati via Chicago and Evanston, IL, which of course threw the connection at Cincinnati out, etc. Hey, I also happened to catch the last train to run from Dallas to Austin, TX in early summer 1964 to take the bar exam, etc. Now back in operation and checked the schedule tonight for trip to my wife's 102 year old grandmother's funeral south of there. Steve Goodman, best known for "City of New Orleans," one of the last good train songs, was a friend and at the NY funeral of my struggling musician kid brother years ago.
And please stay in touch!
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