“Casey Jones”


John Luther “Casey” Jones came to symbolize the American railroadman in the folk and popular imagination because of a ballad written by a personal acquaintance upon the circumstances of his death. (On a collateral line can be mentioned other railroad ballads about train wrecks which have won folk audiences and display general similarities.) The song composed by Wallis Sounders was adapted into a Tin Pan Alley song.

In folkloric terms, Richard M. Dorson explains in America in Legend, Casey Jones is primarily the ballad hero, and the history of the ballad has shaped the image of the fearless engineer. This history, which begins as a Negro folksong and ends as a white sheet music song, falls into four parts. First, there is a tradition of Negro railroad songs about a loose-living, fast-driving engineer—to which belonged, it seems, the version written by Wallis Saunders (or Wallace, or Wash, Saunder), the Negro roundhouse engine wiper for the Illinois Central, who knew Casey. Second, there is a composition drawing from this tradition but specifically applied to the wreck at Vaughan by Saunders, which launched a string of folk variants. The third is grounded in a vaudeville version with a rollicking chorus, published in 1903 by T. Lawrence Siebert who wrote the words and Eddie Newton who furnished the music, and popularized by a vaudevillian brother act of Bert and Frank Leighton, whose other brother Bill was an engineer on the Illinois Central; and fourth, many parodies, some highly ribald, of the popular hit. (By 1914, a million copies of the song had been sold.)

Audio clips

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John hurt follows perhaps most closely the style, if not the lyrics, of the original Saunders version (see lyrics).

Johnny Cash

Cash takes up what is the most popular version, first copyrighted by Siebert and Newton (see lyrics).
Pete Seeger

This version, entitled “Casey Jones (The Union Scab),” goes back, ostensibly, to the legendary union activist and martyr Joe Hill. It transplants Casey Jones from the Illinois Central to the Southern Pacific Railroad and turns him into a scab who causes the worst train wreck recorded in history and thus meets the end he deserves.

The Grateful Dead

In what is clearly a highly ribald spin-off, Hunter/Garcia “married an upbeat rythym and happy melody to [a] disastrous tale of a coke-tootin, whistle-blowin' locomotive engineer that would drive any modern-day (railroad) rules examiner to an easy ulcer” (Ken Rattenne, “The Railroad As Metaphor in Songs by the Grateful Dead”)

The full lyrics are available in “The Annotated ‘Casey Jones’”, an installment in David Dodd’s “The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.”

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cover versions