Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 2008)

Enough about train wrecks for awhile. Let's have a narrow escape from a train wreck.

It seems unlikely to us today, but poetry was immensely popular in the 19th century. Even into the first quarter of the 20th, newspapers regularly published poems, usually on a patriotic, religious, and/or sentimental topic. The standardized rhyme scheme and rhythm of this popular poetry encouraged memorization. School, in fact, had a fourth "R," because part of the grammar school curriculum required the student to Recite memorized pieces in front of class. Most of the population lived in the country, and the low population density meant that it wasn't worth while for professional entertainers to play anywhere but in the cities. Recitation provided home or community entertainment by non-musical people.

Bill Mason started out as one such printed poem, Bill Mason's Bride, circa 1870 (poem given below). It's usually credited to Bret Harte (1837-1902), although it's nowhere in his published works or private papers. Between 1880 and 1900, it appeared in at least 3 books of published recitation anthologies. At some point, someone set the poem to music, greatly improving it by eliminating unnecessary material.

Roy Harvey (?-1958), a member of the North Carolina Ramblers, probably learned it when he worked as a railroad engineer before he started a musical career. He recorded it in 1927. This version, from 1929, was also recorded by the NC Ramblers, this time with Charlie Poole (1892-1931) singing. Per the Dictionary of American Regional English, "chunk" or "chuck" means stocky, sturdy, robust, as in a "chunk of a horse." That standard for beauty has gone out of fashion, along with the ability to flag down trains and memorize long poems.


Complete Lyrics:
[Spoken introduction:
Roy Harvey: Mmm – that man sure does blow a wicked whistle, don’t he? Sounds like that old feller that used to run on the Southern, between Monroe and Spencer. Pulled that Crescent Limited. What was his name, Charlie?
Charlie Poole: Oh, you thinking about Bill Mason.
R: O, yeah. Whatever become of him?
C: Well, he got married here awhile back.
R: O, married! I thought he was sick, that’s what’s the matter with him, I thought.
C: Murdered near ‘bout it, but then he got married here awhile back and we made up a song on him.
R: Let’s play it then.
C: Alright.]

1. Bill Mason was an engineer, he’d been on the road all his life;
I’ll never forget the morning he married him a chunk of a wife;
Bill hadn’t been married more’n an hour, ‘til up came a message from Kress,
And ordered Bill to come down and bring out the night express.

2. While Maggie set by the window, a-waiting for the night express,
And if she hadn’t-a done so, she’d-a been a widow, I guess;
There were some drunken rascals that came down by the ridge,
They came down by the railroad and tore off a rail from the bridge.

3. Well, Maggie heard them working, “I guess there’s something wrong.”
In less than fifteen minutes, Bill’s train would be along.
She couldn’t come near to tell him ¾ a mile, it wouldn’t have done;
She just grabbed up the lantern and made for the bridge alone.

4. By Jove, Bill saw the signal, and stopped the night express.
He found his Maggie crying on the track in her wedding dress;
A-crying and laughing with joy, still holding onto the light.
He come ‘round the curve a-flying, Bill Mason’s on time tonight.

In case you want to brush up on your recitation skills, here's the original:

By Bret Harte(sic).
From: Successful Recitations, Edited by Alfred H. Miles, published 1901

Half an hour till train time, sir,
An' a fearful dark time, too;
Take a look at the switch lights, Tom,
Fetch in a stick when you're through.
On time? Well, yes, I guess so--
Left the last station all right;
She'll come round the curve a-flyin';
Bill Mason comes up to-night.

You know Bill? No? He's engineer,
Been on the road all his life--
I'll never forget the mornin'
He married his chuck of a wife.
'Twas the summer the mill hands struck,
Just off work, every one;
They kicked up a row in the village
And killed old Donevan's son.

Bill hadn't been married mor'n an hour,
Up comes a message from Kress,
Orderin' Bill to go up there
And bring down the night express.
He left his gal in a hurry,
And went up on Number One,
Thinking of nothing but Mary,
And the train he had to run.

And Mary sat down by the window
To wait for the night express;
And, sir, if she hadn't 'a done so,
She'd been a widow, I guess.

For it must 'a been nigh midnight
When the mill hands left the Ridge;
They came down--the drunken devils,
Tore up a rail from the bridge,
But Mary heard 'em a-workin'
And guessed there was something wrong--
And in less than fifteen minutes,
Bill's train it would be along!

She couldn't come here to tell us,
A mile--it wouldn't 'a done;
So she jest grabbed up a lantern,
And made for the bridge alone.
Then down came the night express, sir,
And Bill was makin' her climb!
But Mary held the lantern,
A-swingin' it all the time.

Well, by Jove! Bill saw the signal,
And he stopped the night express,
And he found his Mary cryin'
On the track in her weddin' dress;
Cryin' an' laughin' for joy, sir,
An' holdin' on to the light--
Hello! here's the train--good-bye, sir,
Bill Mason's on time to-night.

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