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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 TrainsTM

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,
    From the warm and sunny southlands, to the isle of Labrador,
    There's a train that's quite important; she's known by one and all,
    She's the western combination called the Wabash Cannonball.

    Oh, listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar,
    As she glides along the woodlands, over hills and by the shore.
    Hear the thunder of the engine, hear the lonesome whistle call.
    She's the western combination called the Wabash Cannonball.

    Oh, the eastern states are dandy, so the western people say,
    Chicago, Rock Island, St. Louis by the way.
    To the hills of Minnesota, where the rippling waters fall,
    No changes to be taken on the Wabash Cannonball.

    Now here's to Daddy Claxton, may his name forever stand,
    And always be remembered through the courts throughout the land.
    His earthly race is over, now the curtains round him fall.
    We'll carry him home to Dixie on the Wabash Cannonball.

    I have rode the I.C. Limited, also the Royal Blue,
    Across the eastern countries, on mail car number two.
    I have rode those highball trains from coast to coast, that's all,
    But I have found no equal to the Wabash Cannonball.

MP3 clips from Amazon

    Wabash Cannonball - Willie Nelson
    Willie's classic vocal over a western swing accompaniment.
    Wabash Cannonball - Roy Acuff
    A traditional "Smoky Mountain" style arrangement, with harmonica and train whistle. By the way, the middle name of Roy's lawyer father was Claxton. But Roy swore that's not where the Claxton name came from.
    Wabash Cannonball - Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys
    Live performance at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival
    Wabash Cannonball - Carter Family
    From a Johnny Cash tour album - Maybelle and the girls give us their classic three-part harmony, backed by Tennessee Three and others. Take a listen.

More Great Sound Clips of This Song

Amazon has dozens more great sound clips of this song by first-tier artists. But, frankly, they move around, as publishers withdraw one record and put another one online. If you click on one of the links above and you don't get the song you want by the artist you want, just search for it; it may have been taken down and reposted under another product ID. Or just click the following link and see who else has recorded this song.

You-Tube Videos of This Song

I 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.

  • Boxcar Willie - Willie's version is one of the "standards" of the genre. One thing nice about it is that you can really understand the words, so if you're practicing the song, this is a good one to work with.

  • Johnny Cash Studio recording - with random movies of trains in the video channel. Looking for this recording was the reason I kept finding the other Cash performance below. This is his best recording, but if this link gets taken down, think of the other two as backup :-)

  • Jerry Reed live on the old Porter Wagonner show. One thing interesting is how fast Wagonner's band catches on to his unusual tempo and beat - the first line and a half is a bit ragged, and from then on it sounds like they rehearsed every bit. That's the difference between real musicians and the hundreds of wannabees I've known over the years as a guitar teacher. "I don't see why I'll ever need to know more chords than I need to play my favorite songs." "The circle of 5ths is for people who can't feel the music in their gut." See my article How to Give Guitar Lessons for more information.

  • Chet Atkins - nobody plays it better.

  • Willie Nelson - I admit, Willie's verion with the Highwaymen is better, but it seems to have been taken down. This will still get you a taste of Willie's take on the song.

  • Johnny Cash - a 1979 television appearance.

  • Carter Sisters with Johnny Cash - another television appearance.

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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).

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Reader Response

Peter 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.

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