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The Folklore and Folksong of Trains in America, Part Two

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This is the second part of a two-part article on the folklore of trains. Part one, focusing on the development of railroads in the United States and related songs and lore can be found here.

Part Two: Trains and American Culture

Fast Mail,” ca. 1871. An illustration of one of the trains that sped commerce in the nineteenth century.  This train is marked L.S. & M.S. on the side of the locomotive, the abbreviation for the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. Prints and Photographs Division.

The coming of the railroads made profound changes in life and culture in the United States.  Travel and trade between  cities became much faster, and the settlement of the states and territories west of the Mississippi was accelerated.  They also made changes to the landscape as tracks were laid and new towns sprang up along tracks as they had once sprung up along rivers. The sounds of trains and train travel also became part of everyday life and entered our culture and our music. In 1936 John Lomax recorded an unknown former train caller demonstrating his style of calling out the train destinations.  “Coocoo Bobo,” performed by Enrique Rodriguez, is an impersonation of train sounds that demonstrates how musical they are (recorded by Stetson Kennedy in 1940).  “Train,” performed by Ace Johnson on harmonica and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939, is a blues tune made up of train sounds. Tunes with train sounds became a challenge for old time and bluegrass fiddlers. One of the most famous of these today is the “Orange Blossom Special,” written by Ervin T. Rouse in 1938. The Bar J Wranglers performed a version of the Orange Blossom Special as an encore at the end of their concert at the Library of Congress in 2008 (the song begins at 57 minutes into the video at the link). Rouse was inspired by traditional tunes. This is “Lost Train Blues,” played by Glen Carver and Fred Perry in 1939.

Trains took on symbolic meanings that had been attached to other forms of transportation in the past. The trains had associations with romance and could be about reunion and separation, as was true for ships and carriages. The song “Railroader,” sung from the point of view of a girl who explains that she wants to “marry a railroad man,” is performed in this example by Russ Pike, who learned it from his mother. (It was recorded by Robert Sonkin and Charles “Lafe” Todd in 1941.) “Filava filava,” sung by Eugenio Cibelli for Victor in 1921, is a song in Italian about riding trains and finding true love. “New River Train,” here sung by Kelly Harrell for Victor in 1925, is a complaint song about a broken relationship found in traditional old-time and country music.  Blues and trains seemed to go well together,  as found in “Long Freight Train Blues,” a song about lost love sung by Wilbert Gilliam and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939 and in “Depot Blues” (1942) sung by Son House — a song  in the voice of a man expressing rage at the train that took his love away.

Trains could also symbolically take people towards a new social or political cause, experience, or goal. A popular song of the mid-nineteenth century, “Riding on a Rail,” by Charlie Converse, expressed riding on a train as an experience in social equality (the link goes to the sheet music):

Men of Different Stations
In the eye of fame,
Here are very quickly
Coming to the same;
High and lowly people,
Birds of every Feather,
On a common level,
A travelling together

Johnny Mitchell’s Train,” sung by Jerry Byrne, is a song from 1890s and is related to the rise of the United Mine Worker’s Union and its second president, John Mitchell. The lyrics use “riding on Johnny Mitchell’s train” to mean loyalty to the Union.

Just as riding a train might mean being part of a cause, the language of railroad technology entered the common language in other ways as well.  Our plans could be “sidetracked,” or even “derailed.”  Train lines created divisions in cities of the “right side of the tracks” and the “wrong side” where poor people lived. “Hell on wheels,” meaning dangerous and chaotic, originally referred to the ungoverned temporary village of tents and shacks at the end of the Union Pacific Railroad as it expanded eastward, housing workers and those who supplied them with necessities as well as alcohol and prostitutes, all of which picked up and moved periodically as the tracks were built. From steam powered engines of all types, the idea of someone blowing up in anger (like a storm) changed to “blowing his/her stack” as an engine explodes.

The first steam locomotive to blow its stack was the much heralded Best Friend of Charleston, the South Carolina locomotive that was the first commercial engine used for transport built in the United States.  The boiler exploded on June 17, 1831, only six months after being put into service, injuring the crew. The American public had mixed feelings about the railroads, their dangers, and the changes that they brought, and accidents such as this one did not help matters.  But the railroads also symbolized progress and the future as they brought more rapid commerce and business opportunities to a growing nation.

The use of trains to move mail and parcels began even as the first lines were being built in 1832 and became the primary means of moving mail by the 1850s. The desire for the railroad business to serve the needs of commerce led to an increasing need for the trains to run quickly. As the railroads expanded, mail, both commercial and private, traveled by train, with postal workers sorting mail in cars en route.  The Post Office set times and schedules for the arrival of the mail and the railroads could not always adhere to these.  The need for fast mail delivery and passenger service had the unfortunate consequence of  train wrecks caused by excessive speed.

An Illinois Central Railroad Locomotive similar to the type Casey Jones would have driven. Photo by Jack Delano, 1942. Prints and Photographs Division. Select the link for a larger image and more information.

Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones was an Illinois Central Railroad engineer with a reputation for keeping his trains on schedule. On April 29, 1900, Jones and his fireman, Simeon “Sim” Webb, were asked to take over the night run of the Memphis, Tennessee to Canton, Mississippi passenger train, Cannonball Express, for an engineer who was ill. When they started out, the train was already ninety-five minutes late and it was raining. Jones attempted to make up some of that time. The train collided with another train that was  stalled at Vaughan, Mississippi. Jones told Webb to jump as he tried to slow the train before the collision. The railroad inquiry blamed Jones for the collision as he failed to slow his train in response to a flagman ahead of the stalled train. Arguments persist to this day as to whether he could have seen the flagman in the rain and fog. In its day, this was a fairly ordinary train accident, eclipsed by more dramatic derailments in the newspapers at the time. It became part of our national memory because the many versions of the ballad that this train wreck inspired. These treat Jones as a hero, as he was the only person to die and so was credited for saving the passengers and fireman.

Some of the lyrics that became the ballad have been attributed to Wallace Saunders, an African American who worked for Illinois Central Railroad as an engine wiper — although the exact words of his song are not known.[1] Many versions of the ballad were in existence before attempts were made to find its origins. The song often adds a fictional important passenger, such as “Vanderbilt’s daughter,” whose life was saved. Most versions include a verse with Jones telling the fireman, usually “Jim” rather than “Sim,” to jump. Folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon recorded Francis H. Abbott singing “Casey Jones” in 1932, which begins with Vanderbilt’s daughter riding the train.  But, for the most part, this early version of the ballad presents a matter-of-fact account of the story.  Jim Holbert, recorded singing “Casey Jones” in 1940, sings a version that shows how the Jones legend grew. Jones goes to heaven and talks with St. Peter, for example.  Holbert learned the words without hearing the tune and chose his own tune. Controversy arose when a vaudeville version of the song was created, one in which Jones’s widow admits at the end that her children are by an adulterous relationship. Although this was intended as humor, it was not thought funny by people who wanted to preserve Jones’s good name through the ballad. A version of the vaudeville song was collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell, sung by Byron Coffin in 1939. The folk seem to have been victorious in this case, as the traditional versions, rather than the vaudeville one, have persisted longer and more widely.

On September 27, 1903, a much more horrific freight train wreck caught the public’s imagination and inspired a ballad. The train Fast Mail or “Old 97,” was behind schedule en route from Monroe, Virginia to Spencer, North Carolina. Engineer Joseph A. “Steve” Broady was trying to make up time and unfortunately was unfamiliar with the route. Heading downhill steeply near Danville, Virginia, on a high trestle with a sharp curve, he was unable to slow the train enough to avoid derailing. It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon and so some Danville residents saw the train drive off the track about fifty feet above ground. Of eighteen people on the train, eleven people died, including crew and postal workers, with seven seriously injured. Only one man escaped with minor injuries.[2]   As the ballad relates, the engineer was “scalded to death by the steam” of the locomotive and so was the fireman. Here is Robert Winslow Gordon’s recording of Fred Lewy singing “The Wreck of the Old 97” in 1925.

The origins of the ballad “The Old 97” may never cease being debated. Some points are agreed upon though. The author or authors of the lyrics were among those who responded to the disaster; the tune was taken from “The Ship That Never Returned,” by Henry Clay Work; parodies of Work’s song about a “train that never returned” were already in folk tradition at the time of the wreck; [3] and by the time Vernon Dalhart made a popular commercial recording of the song for Victor in 1924, there were already several versions in oral tradition. David Graves George filed suit against Victor, claiming authorship. Fred Lewey and Charles Noell also claimed to have written the song, though they did not sue Victor. Folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon testified in the case concerning the previously existing songs in folk tradition. The last verse of the song, for example, is clearly a reworking of a ballad collected by Frank C. Brown in North Carolina, “The Parted Lovers,” with a warning not to let a quarrel be the last your love hears, as they may not return.[4]  The dispute is historic as the first copyright suit regarding a recording. The case was eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Overturning previous rulings, the song was determined to be a folksong and the court found in favor of Victor.

Boxer Lou Ambers hopping a freight train in 1935. This was not an uncommon way for men to travel when they were looking for work during the Great Depression. Prints and Photographs Division. Select the link for a larger image and more information.

Trains and the customs and meanings surrounding them also figured in the lives of people who could least afford to ride on them.  Hobos, tramps, migrants — those who needed to travel but did not have fare, whatever they might be called — developed a culture of their own and means of finding their way onto trains. Freighthopping involved riding under, on top of, or in boxcars, risking injury, being beaten off by train officials, and arrest.  “Hobo” songs about the railways include some of the most fanciful descriptions of railroad travel. Harry McClintock, who tramped about in his younger life, sings “The Big Rock Candy Mountains,” a song he says that he wrote, and there is no earlier claim. He explains how he came to compose the song to folklorist Sam Eskin at the beginning of the recording.  This is no children’s song, but tells of a hobo’s idea of paradise, where the boxcars all are empty, the brakemen have to tip their hats to hobos, and the “railroad bulls” are blind. Of course there are also cigarette trees, lakes of stew, and handouts growing on trees.

Another hobo song, though delightful, relates to the end of life. “The Wabash Cannonball,” here sung by Vernie Westfall, a young woman from Haskell, Oklahoma, accompanied by Ernie Alston and recorded by Charles “Lafe” Todd and Robert Sonkin in 1940, existed in tradition as a song about the train that would take dying hobos to their afterlife.  Notice that in this recording the refrain refers to “riding through the jungles on the Wabash Cannonball.” “Jungle” is a term for a hobo camp, often found near train yards. It is not clear whether published versions of “The Wabash Cannonball” were written before or after the hobo song, but it became a standard in old-time and country-western music.[5]  In hobo versions this is no ordinary train. The version sung by Vernie Westfall includes a verse alluding to the traditional meaning of the song (as did versions recorded by Roy Acuff and Doc Watson):

Our eastern states are dandy, so the people always say,
From New York to St. Louis and Chicago by the way,
From the hills of Minnesota where the rippling waters fall
No changes can be taken on the Wabash Cannonball.

The train takes a route all over the country, as no single train does, and no changes can be taken because it leads to the ultimate destination.

An engine used for President Abraham Lincoln's funeral train. A steam locomotive with a portrait of Lincoln on the front.
The “Nashville,” one of several engines used for the train that carried President Abraham Lincoln’s body from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, 1865. Prints and Photographs Division.

“The Wabash Cannonball” makes clear one of the things that trains symbolize: life ending in death. Trains took brave engineers to their deaths, sometimes with passengers and crew.  Abraham Lincoln, who was the first president to travel to his inauguration by train, also left by a funeral train that made a circuit through several cities before taking Lincoln home to Springfield, Illinois, in 1865, an image that left a lasting impression on all who witnessed it. Many funeral marches were composed for use in the different cities where the train traveled. It was the centennial of this event that inspired a song about the train, though, “Lincoln’s Funeral Train,” by Norman Blake (see this catalog record).

“Little Black Train” is an old  hymn that has been adapted by musicians such as A.P. Carter of the Carter Family singers and Woody Guthrie.  It calls up the image of a black train that brings death and warns the listener to prepare, as the train “may be here tonight.”  The song “Hell Bound Train,”  sung by Andrew Jackson and recorded in Michigan by Alan Lomax in 1938, warns that as you travel through life you should be sure to know which train you are on.

Portrait of Sam Ballard.
Sam Ballard, a retired railroad worker who sang “Catch that Train” for Alan Lomax in Louisiana in 1934. Lomax collection of photographs, Prints and Photographs Division.

The overwhelming majority of religiously inspired songs about trains are positive ones, though, celebrating finding the right train to ride through life. Though these allude to death, the end is in salvation. The engineer might be Jesus, or the Bible, or the person who is steering their way through life. The symbolic elements vary, but spirituals and hymns on this theme are abundant.  These can be found today in many styles, spirituals, country and western, rhythm and blues, and Gospel. Songs could have multiple meanings too, as demonstrated by former railroad worker Sam Ballard as he sings a song for Alan Lomax in 1934: “Catch That Train,” instructs passengers to get their tickets and luggage so it may have been used as a work song, but also could have a spiritual meaning as a warning of death in the same vein as “Little Black Train.”[6]

Because many African American religious songs include references to trains, it is often asserted that these were used as code for escape to freedom.  There are good reasons to speculate that this might be so, as the language of the Underground Railroad used railroad metaphors to maintain secrecy. For example, those who acted as guides were called “conductors,” fleeing slaves were “passengers,” and safe houses were “stations.” The spirituals could certainly have several meanings. But it is difficult to date any particular song, as spirituals were not collected and written down until after emancipation and the earliest collection does not include songs about trains.[7] To prove the hypothesis, it would be necessary to find someone who said that they used a train song as code to assist slaves in escape — but the activities were illegal and lives were at stake, so people who knew kept silent.[8]  Even so, spirituals about trains could be about both salvation and the desire for emancipation at the same time or, after emancipation, they could express a desire for greater freedom in both this life and the next.

Sheet music for the traditional African American Spritual, “The Gospel Train,” John Church & co. 1881. It credits the [Fisk] Jubilee Singers as a source. Music Division.
“The Gospel Train,” is the title of several songs with a similar message, the most famous of which is the African American spiritual with the refrain “Get on board, little children, get on board.” This link is for sheet music for the spiritual published in 1881. “The Gospel Train,” sung by Brady Walker, William Grant, Mary Lee, Thomas Trimmer, and Phil Butler and recorded in South Carolina by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939 is a different spiritual, sung in a harmony style that was becoming popular at the time of the recording.  A field recording of the Belleville A Capella Choir made by Alan Lomax in Virginia in 1960 provides a later Gospel-style song called “The Gospel Train” with vocal train sounds and a warning, as found in “The Little Black Train,” that the train will be here tonight.[9]

Spirituals about trains are often sung in the first person, in a testimonial fashion.  “I Got My Ticket,” sung by the Traveller Home Singers and recorded by John Wesley Work III in 1941, is a joyful proclamation. “I’m Gwine Home on de Mornin’ Train,” sung by Dock Reed, Hettie Godfrey, and Jesse Allison and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in Alabama in 1939, begins with the metaphor of the train, but quickly shifts to other religious imagery and a refrain saying, “all my sins have been taken away.”

Perhaps you have favorite train lore, train language, or train songs that have not been mentioned here. Please share examples or reflections of your experience with trains and folklife in the comments.  More examples of recordings can be found through exploring the online collections.


1. For a more in-depth discussion of the history of the ballad “Casey Jones,” including attempts to track its origins and accounts of some verses attributed to Saunders, see Norm Cohen’s chapter on the song in Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American FolksongUniversity of Illinois Press, 1981, pp. 132-157 (the link goes to the catalog record).

2. In historical accounts there is some confusion about the number of dead and injured in this case, reflecting the confusion at the time. The number of people on the train was not known at the time of the crash. Initially sixteen men were thought to have been on the train, later revised to eighteen. A young man of seventeen was found in the wreckage four days after the event. Another man reported injured the day of the accident died ten days later.

3. Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail, pp. 200-202.

4. “The Parted Lover” can be found in the  Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Duke University Press, 1952, volume 2, pp. 508-509. Also, Cohen discusses the connection to the “Wreck of the Old 97” in Long Steel Rail, p. 201.

5. See Cohen’s discussion of “The Wabash Cannonball” in Long Steel Rail, pp. 373-378.

6. Joshua Caffery points out this possible double meaning in his book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, Louisiana University Press, 2013, p. 56. The link to the song is part of a website created by Joshua Caffery as part of his Kluge Fellowship: John and Alan Lomax in Louisiana, 1934

7. Slave Songs of the United States, compiled by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, published in 1867, was the first collection of African American songs. It is available online via the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

8. Harriet Tubman said that she used two songs to announce her presence to slaves that might want to flee, “Go Down Moses,” and a version of “Thorny Desert,” so there is this evidence that songs were used as code.  Bradford, Sarah H. 1886. Harriet: The Moses of Her People, is available online via the University of North Carolina’s “Documenting the American South” site.

9. This song is found in the Association for Cultural Equity’s research database.

Comments (3)

  1. Great, trains are the development of a people in America.

  2. “I like Jim Hill, he’s a good friend of mine
    That is why I am hiking down Jim Hill’s main line
    Hallelujah, I’m a bum, Hallelujah, bum again
    Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again”

  3. I’ve got a lot of favourites among these songs, “Old 97″ among them. Another is ‘The Little Red Caboose” which, although fictional (as far as I know) has an awful feel of authenticity about it. Over here in GB we don’t have this same song tradition about railroad disasters – the broadsheet and folk song tradition had faded soon after the railways came. What songs we do have – “Moses of the Mail”, “Land of the Pennine God” and “Ballad of John Axen” are actually modern compositions. There is of course the classic Percy French song, “Are Ye Right There, Michael”, inspired by a disastrous journey on the West Clare line, which is still a firm favourite!

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