From the old-time country music newsgroup

Casey Jones

By John Garst

"Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer," was published in 1909 by T. Lawrence Seibert (words) and Eddie Newton (music). The cover calls it the "Greatest Comedy Hit in Years" and "The Only Comedy Railroad Song." The text, set to a sprightly tune, tells a story of the death of engineer Casey Jones in a train wreck.
 
Jim Holbert's "Casey Jones"
 
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?toddbib:61:./temp/~ammem_I0tT::
 
is right interesting. He uses his own tune but he says he was given the text as a ballet. Thanks to those who've supplied "brave" as the word I couldn't understand in fourth line of the third verse.
 
Some historical background:
 
John Luther "Cayce" Jones started in railroad work as a "cub operator," then became a brakeman, a fireman (a job he held for several years), an engineer in freight service, and finally an express passenger/mail-train engineer for the Illinois Central, IC.
 
In 1900, IC's fast express passenger and mail trains between Chicago and New Orleans were designated Nos. 1-4. On Sunday, April 29, 1900, Jones came into Memphis early in the morning on No. 2. His regular schedule had him going out again on No. 3 the next morning. However, he was called that evening to replace Sam Tate, who was sick, on No. 1, scheduled to leave Memphis a bit before midnight. The train was late coming in, so Jones and Webb, in Engine 382, left at nearly 1 a.m. on Monday, April 30, 75-90 minutes behind schedule. (There is confusion over whether or not this was Jones' regular engine - see http://www.watervalley.net/users/caseyjones/c~ball.htm .)
 
They made a passenger stop at Calhoun Street and then struck off through the countryside. By the time they reached Durant, Mississippi, 151 miles south, they were only about 30 minutes behind schedule. At Goodman, eight miles south of Durant, they "took siding" to allow No. 2 (northbound) to pass. (Who was the engineer for No. 2? How many engineers were assigned to the Memphis-Canton runs of Nos. 1-4?)
 
Coming out of an "S" curve as they approached Vaughn, Mississippi, 15 miles south of Goodman, they saw the red warning lights of a train on the main line just ahead. Jones threw on the emergency brakes and told Webb to jump. Webb was knocked unconscious when he hit the ground, and when he came to 30 minutes later, he was told that Jones was dead. The engine had plowed through 3 1/2 rear cars of a freight train that was parked partly on the siding and partly on the main line, there being insufficient room on the siding for all of it. The wreck was at 3:52 a.m.
 
The flagman of the freight train and others said that all the regulations for warnings had been followed. Webb at first said that he thought he might have heard warning torpedoes go off, but later he denied hearing them. Neither he nor Jones saw flares, flags, or a flagman, he said. Even so, the official railroad investigation, conducted a month later, accepted that regulations had been followed and blamed Jones for the accident. Webb, Jones' widow, and possibly others blamed the flagman, John Newberry, whom they believed to have been negligent in his duties.
 
(1) First verse.
 
Come all you railroaders if you want to hear
A story about an engineer,
Casey Jones a-was the rounder's name,
It was on a heavy eight wheeler pulling an IC train.

 
The addressed audience is "railroaders," not "rounders," as in the popular song. Casey is "an engineer," not a "brave engineer." He, unlike the addressed audience, is a "rounder."
 
Railroad Avenue, by Freeman Hubbard, has an extensive glossary of railroad terms in the back. "Rounder" is not among them. On WWW sites I find "rounder" defined as follows:
 
Rounder is American slang for an habitual criminal or drunkard.
Rounder is American slang for a transient railway worker.
Rounder: A hustler, a thief, one who's been around the block, as "He's an old rounder who's cut a few corners in life."
Rounder: Renown burglar
Rounder: a New York slang term for a man given to the company of the "demi-monde." One who is well acquainted with the town, especially the shady side of it.
 
Bruce Gurner says, at http://www.watervalley.net/users/caseyjones/cj~long.htm : "If we did not already know that Casey was not the rounder the song would have you believe, we know it now."
 
Whatever the exact meaning of "rounder" might be in "Casey Jones," it is a derogatory term.
 
The engine was a ten wheeler. IC (Illinois Central) is correct.
 
(2) Second verse.
 
Casey got up about a half past four,
Well, he kissed his wife at the station door,
Jumped in the cabin with his orders in his hand,
Saying, "This is a trip to the holy land.

 
Sim Webb stated that they were called at 9-10 p.m. with their double-up assignment to train No. 1 and the news that it was running late. Jones could have "got up about half past four." That would have allowed for plenty of sleep. Versions that have, "Caller called Casey 'bout a half past four," contradict Webb. Webb stated that Jones spent part of the day installing a new whistle. He could have done this after "half past four." One might suppose that he would install the new whistle on his own engine. Some of the confusion about engine assignments might be resolved by the information that the new whistle was, or was not, on the wrecked engine.
 
Not "promised land," as in common versions, but "holy land." (A few other versions have this.) A trip to the "promised land" would be a premonition of death, but a trip to the "holy land" might suggest something else, perhaps Jones' inordinate pride in his job. "Pride goeth before a fall."
 
(3) Third verse.
 
Stopped on the square at the corner of the main,
Three polices asked him his name,
"My name is written on the back of my shirt,
"I'm a brave engineer and I don't have to work."

 
They stopped for five minutes at Calhoun Street. I'm not sure why "polices" should be especially interested in his name, but Casey gives a surly reply. I don't know whether or not all employees of the IC had their names written on the backs of their shirts. If not, and if Casey did, this might emphasize his egotistical side. Anyhow, it is not the narrator of the song, but Casey *himself*, who calls Casey a "brave engineer," obvious bragging. "I don't have to work" may refer to his former labor as a fireman. Paul Stamler writes, "I suspect a modification of the floating line, 'I'm a natural-born easeman, I don't have to work' (easeman = someone with great sexual talent)." If so, then the song writer must expect the listener to make the connection with the familiar verse, further demeaning Jones.
 
Furry Lewis sang several "Kassie Jones" verses with tag lines, "On the road again / I'm a natural born eas'man, on the road again." His ultimate verse is "I left Memphis to spread the news / Memphis women don't wear no shoes / Had it written on the back of my shirt / Natural born eas'man, don't have to work." Here this verse seems to be an intrusion, not connected to the railroad story. It could easily be the older model on which Holbert's third verse is based. Perhaps Lewis recalled it as a more familiar verse than the one in Holbert and reverted to the original. (Is retromutation a good word?)
 
(4) Fourth verse.
 
Casey pulled out on the Memphis yard
With the Number 3 daily on the schedule card,
Passengers all knew by the engine move [? engine's moves]
That the man at the throttle was-a Casey Jones.

 
"Number 3 daily on the schedule card" - No. 3 was Jones' next regularly scheduled run.
 
The more common "engine's moans" seems to make better sense here.
 
(5) Fifth verse.
 
Pulled out his watch and a-looked at the time,
Says to the fireman, "This engine's behind,
"I'll run this train, I'll leave the rails,
"For I'm ten hours late with the southern mail."

 
Casey states here that he will be reckless, "I'll leave the rails." This sounds like, "I don't give a damn about the passengers."
 
"Ten hours late" is wrong, it was 75-90 minutes. "Southern mail" is right, it is what the train was often called. It was also known as the "Cannonball Express," but it is not clear that this name was in use at the time of Jones' wreck. Some versions of the song, however, name the "Cannonball" or "Cannon Ball."
 
(6) Sixth verse.
 
'Round the curve, a-saw a passenger train,
Both head lights were a-shining the same,
Turned to the fireman, says, "Pick out a place to jump,
"The Number 1's a-coming and it's bound to bump."

 
"Round the curve" is right. "Passenger train" is wrong, it was a freight.
 
I don't know what "Both head lights were a-shining the same" might means, but "Both *red* lights" would make perfect sense and be accurate. The caboose of a train stopped on the main line would display two red lights. That is, in fact, what Webb says they saw. Thus, "head lights" is probably a mutation of an earlier "red lights."
 
Webb said repeatedly that Jones told him to jump.
 
The train being driven by Jones was indeed "Number 1."
 
(7) Seventh verse.
 
When the news reached home that-a Casey was dead,
His-a wife and chillun was asleep in the bed,
"Lie still, chillun, and-a take your rest,
"For we'll draw a pension at your daddy's death."

 
Jones died at 3:52 a.m. His wife and children might well have been asleep when the family was contacted.
 
The matter-of-fact statement, attributed here to Mrs. Jones, is another jibe at Jones. In the Seibert version the line, "you [children] got another papa on the Salt Lake line," caused Mrs. Jones great distress. No indications have surfaced that either Jones was unfaithful. On another "moral" front, Cayce Jones was a teetotaler.
 
(8) Eighth verse.
 
Casey went to heaven right a-straight on from here,
And he told Saint Peter he's an engineer,
"You've run your engine so brave and bold,
"I'll send you back to shoveling coal."

 
Saint Peter demoted the "brave and bold" Jones to his old job of fireman. The implication may be that he is sent to stoke the fires of Hell.
 
Casey called himself a "brave engineer" in this version. St. Peter makes his being "brave and bold" a liability. St. Peter must have seen Jones as reckless.
 
(9) Ninth verse.
 
Casey said before he died,
There's two more trains that he'd like to ride,
"Look on the map and you will see
"The Southern Pacific and the Sante Fe."

 
I see no particular significance here, but this verse makes a connection with other, perhaps earlier, songs, e.g., "Jay Gould's Daughter."
 
Although this text includes several minor errors, when compared with historical facts, it gets a lot right:
 
"IC" (Illinois Central)
"Stopped on the square" (stopped at Calhoun Street)
"Number 3 daily on the schedule card (Jones' regular run)
"This engine's behind" (so it was)
"southern mail" (correct popular name)
"'Round the curve" (they saw the parked train as they rounded a curve)
"Both head lights" (correct as "both red lights")
"Pick out a place to jump" (Jones told Webb to jump)
"Number 1's a coming" (Jones was driving train No. 1)
"wife and chillun was asleep" (it was very early in the morning)
"we'll draw a pension at your daddy's death"
    (she drew pensions from two railroad brotherhoods and perhaps one from IC)
"back to shoveling coal" (Jones had been a fireman)
 
This must have been written by someone with intimate knowledge of the facts of the case and Jones' career.
 
Furry Lewis' version has a few features of this text, enough to convince me that it could have derived, in part, from this one. These considerations lead me to believe that the Holbert text is a very early version.
 
In Long Steel Rail, Norm Cohen gives the 1908 version, which also contains many correct facts. It shares about 7 couplets with Holbert (18 total in Holbert, 20 in 1908). It opens:
 
Come all you rounders, for I want you to hear
The story told of an engineer.
Casey Jones was the rounder's name,
A heavy right-wheeler of a mighty fame.

 
This is verse 5:
 
Fireman says, "Casey, you're running too fast,
"You run the block-board the last station you passed."
Jones says, "Yes, I believe we'll make it through,
"For she steams better than ever I knew."

 
Verses 9 and 10 are moralizing:
 
Poor Casey Jones was all right,
For he stuck to his duty both day and night.
They loved to hear his whistle and ring of number three,
As he came into Memphis on the old I. C.
 
Headaches and heartaches, and all kinds of pain,
Are not apart from a railroad train.
Tales that are in earnest, noble and grand,
Belong to the life of a railroad man.

 
1908 is schizoid in its attitude toward Jones. In verse 1 he is a "rounder" (along with the addressed audience), in verse 5 he is "running too fast" and "run the block-board the last station." Verse 6 contains, "I'm going to run her till she leaves the rail / Or make it in on time with the Southern mail." In verse 8, "He's a good engineer, but he's dead and gone." In verse 9 he is "all right," "stuck to his duty," and provided something people "loved." Verse 10 implies that this tale is "earnest, noble and grand."
 
Absent from 1908 are several of the Holbert jibes at Jones: "My name is written on the back of my shirt / I'm a brave engineer and I don't have to work," "we'll draw a pension at your daddy's death," and St. Peter's judgment, "You've run your engine so brave and bold / I'll send you back to shoveling coal."
 
Haywire Mac's version is also schizoid, implying that Jones was beloved ("The women stood cryin', both colored and white") but reckless ("I'll roll her till she leaves the rails") and careless ("I was there to tell the fact, They flagged him down but he never looked back.")
 
This leads me to suspect that competing versions of the ballad circulated early on, one denigrating Jones and the other glorifying him, or at least that the ballads varied considerably in their mixtures of praise and ridicule. Wallace Saunders is said to have written his song as a "tribute" to Jones, whose death was to him a "supreme tragedy" (Freeman Hubbard's words in his book, Railroad Avenue). Hubbard writes this immediately after quoting a close variant of the 1908 version, in which Jones is a "rounder" who runs a "block-board" and threatens to "run her till she leaves the rail," hardly the stuff to inspire admiration.
 
My suspicion is that the 1908 version is a mixture of an earlier one (perhaps Saunders' original) that glorified Jones with one like Holbert, which vilifies him whole-heartedly. One version would represent the views and feelings of those who believed that Jones' actions were proper and that the blame lay with Flagman Newberry. The other would represent those who accepted Newberry's claims to have followed regulations and blamed Jones for his own death and endangering the lives of others.
 
This would run parallel with early versions of "Stack Lee," some of which are sympathetic to Stack Lee Shelton, saying that he was good and loved by all, and others of which paint him as evil personified. In that case, political and personal motives were at work: Shelton was a Democrat, his victim Billy Lyons a Republican, and there had been previous violence to Lyons' relatives, perhaps by Democrats. In the case of Cayce Jones, it would have been the IC and Newberry's supporters against Webb, Jones' widow, and many of the common people of the region.
 
How did "Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer" become the "Greatest Comedy Hit in Years" and "The Only Comedy Railroad Song" to authors Seibert and Newton? They picked up verses and versions that ridiculed Jones and included them in their rewrite: "brave engineer," "rounder," "run her till she leaves the rail," and "we're gonna reach Frisco but we'll all be dead." Since folk versions ridiculed Jones, it must have seemed acceptable to make a "comedy hit" out of the story of his death. They appear to have replaced the pension statement with "you've got another papa on the Salt Lake line."
 
I doubt that this is a general theory of the tendency of songs of tragedy to turn into songs of humor. However, I note that The Great Titanic, which today children at camps sing with great fun, involves a story in which pride went before a fall: "They said it was a ship that / Water could never leak through." The song takes the proud builder to task: "God with His mighty hand / Said that ship it could not stand / It was sad when that great ship went down." The title, The *Great* Titanic, also seems to be taking a shot at the builder. Perhaps the author meant *large*, or perhaps he/she was merely quoting what the Titanic was commonly called, but it sounds as if the "great" Titanic was meant to be a challenge to God, so the song, perhaps written by a preacher, criticizes the mortal but egotistical builder. Perhaps this seed of ridicule is what allows even grown-ups to enjoy roaring out these lines at parties,
 
Husbands and wives,
Little children lost their lives,
It was sad when that *great* ship went down

 
sometimes with the variation,
 
Uncles and aunts,
Little children wet their pants.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

 
Anyhow, I wish I understood better the psychology that makes it *fun* to sing about *tragic* events.