Folklorist Norm Cohen has astutely observed that “[f]olklore thrives where danger threatens” (The Long Steel Rail, cited below, p. 169). The annals of commercially recorded traditional and popular song provide abundant support for this conclusion. In fact, by the early twentieth century — especially the decades of the teens and twenties — nearly every imaginable disaster or mishap was memorialized in song. Natural disasters are represented by songs like “The Cyclone of Ryecove,” “The Oakville Twister,” “Joe Hoover’s Mississippi Flood Song,” and “The Santa Barbara Earthquake.” Man-made disasters are remembered in “The Explosion at Eccles, West Virginia,” “The Ohio Prison Fire,” and “The Stone Mountain Tank Explosion.” Murder, robbery, swindling and other bad behavior figure prominently in such songs as “Billy the Kid,” “The Outlaw John Dillinger,” “Otto Wood the Bandit,” and “Ponzi the Swindler.” Other songs have addressed anxieties about new-fangled flying contraptions. For instance a horrible dirigible crash inspired at least 12 recorded versions of “The Wreck of the Shenandoah.”
But wrecks of trains, not zeppelins, spawned by far the greatest number of songs. Of these, “The Wreck of the Old 97,” which referenced the 1903 train wreck near Danville, Virginia, was one of the most recorded songs. According to Guthrie T. Meade, Jr., Dick Spottswood and Doug Meade in Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2002 ), the song was recorded no fewer than 21 times before 1937. In the 1920s and 1930s it was as popular as “Casey Jones,” a song that is probably more familiar to listeners today. Unlike many versions of “Casey Jones” and other popular songs like “The Wreck of Number Nine,” “The Wreck of the Old 97” presented the details of the crash relatively accurately. The engineer did crash while trying to make up time on a dangerous, descending curve. His terrible death is also accurately described. Have a listen.
This version by Vernon Dalhart is one of over 10,000 recordings that the Library has made available online as part of the National Jukebox project. It was not the first recording of the song, but it was by far the best selling. Owing much of its popularity to its position on the B side of “The Prisoner’s Song,” country music’s first million-seller, it made it into a huge number of households. In fact “The Wreck of the Old 97” became the subject of a protracted legal wrangle between Victor Records and David Graves George who claimed to have written the lyrics. Research by Robert W. Gordon, the first director of the Library’s Archive of Folk Song, bolstered Victor’s claim that Fred Lewey and C. W. Noell had written parts of the song and had as much claim to being its originator as George. It is quite certain that in the two decades between the crash of Old 97 and the ballad’s first recording by Henry Whitter in late 1923, several versions of the song were being performed and modified by a number of performers.
The story of the Old 97 can be traced in two particularly interesting reference sources that see consistent use by the reference librarians in the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress. We field questions from a great variety of individuals among whom are academics, film and television producers, music enthusiasts from around the world, and curious members of the American public. As a result we keep a comprehensive reference collection that covers all aspects of recorded music. Among our most enjoyable reference sources to browse are Norm Cohen’s Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c2000) and Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music by Guthrie T. Meade, Jr. with Dick Spottswood, and Douglas S. Meade (Chapel Hill, N.C. : Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries in Association with the John Edwards Memorial Forum, 2002). Cohen’s work is notable for both its tight focus on railroads and its comprehensive coverage of the field which includes notated music, lyrics, and recording information on a huge number of song variants. Questions on railroad songs don’t come up every day, but when they do, Cohen has your back.
Country Music Sources is a great reference source because, unlike most other good discographies, the authors have actually listened to most of the recordings listed. It also benefits from a fact that the publishers of The Guinness Book of World Records or The Book of Rock Lists (Dave Marsh and Kevin Stein, Dell Publishing, 1981) have long known: when presented correctly giant lists can make astonishingly compelling reading. Because they have listened to the songs, the authors can group them topically in a wide range of useful and interesting categories, including “Mother and Home,” “Prison Songs,” or “Intoxicants.” In the latter category we learn the important fact that Fiddlin’ John Carson’s version of “Pass Around the Bottle” appeared under the title “If You Can’t Get the Stopper Off, Break Off the Neck.” Probably the most amazing entry for variant titles is the song “Flop Eared Mule” that has appeared under titles as different as “Trip To New York,” “Queen City Square Dance,” “Wild Geese, “Green Mountain Poker,” and “Dog in the Ashcan.” The text also reveals that the “Flop Eared Mule” was notably well-travelled; the tune was well known in eastern Europe and Columbia Records released a version by Mahanojaus Lietuviska Maineriu Orkestra under the title “Kuomet Soksi.” Journeying from Danville, Virginia to Lithuania via mule, zeppelin, and steam engine is just another typical day in the Library’s Recorded Sound Section!