Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November 2007)

It's been a long time between train wrecks on these pages. The casualties of the Southern Railroad's 1904 wreck at Newmarket, Tennessee (65-72 killed, more than 100 injured) dwarfs such famous wrecks as Old 97 (Inside Bluegrass, 6/1998), where 8 people died, and Old Number 9 (Inside Bluegrass, 9/2000), with no casualties, because it was an imagined wreck. Yet those puny wrecks generated wildly popular songs, while the Newmarket ballad died young. Katie Letcher Lyle's fine book, Scalded to Death by the Steam (Algonquin Books, 1991) describes the accident on the line between Newmarket and Hodges (northeast of Knoxville) on 9/24/1904. Westbound passenger train #15 and eastbound freight #12 usually met at the Hodges siding, but one of the trains was running late, so they both received orders to pass at Newmarket. The passenger train did not pull onto the siding, and so ran into the oncoming freight a mile out of Newmarket. The boilers of both locomotives exploded. Later, the conductor of #15 admitted he'd forgotten his orders, a mea culpa that is not understandable in our guilt-denial era. Three crash-related events reported in the newspapers:

(1) A man named Lee Hill had been killed in a powder mill explosion, and 7 members of his family were returning home on the train with his body. All died in the wreck; the 8 of them are buried together in Gaffney, SC .
(2) A mail clerk who survived the wreck had also survived the wreck of the Southern Old 97 at Danville, VA the year before. I'd take that as a hint to look for another job.
(3) A carload full of chickens broke open, and while the rescuers were pulling dead and injured from the wreck, the chickens stood around cackling.

This song obviously started out as a broadside poem, perhaps printed by a newspaper and sold separately. The clue is in verse 2, which tells you to turn the sheet of paper over to see the picture on the back. [Editor's Note: A copy of this broadside, which credits words and music to R.H. Brooks, can be found in Norm Cohen's Long Steel Rail. It's a painting, though, not a photo.]  I don't know who set the poem to music. Katie Lyle doesn't like the lyrics. She calls them poorly composed, with forced and sometimes meaningless rhymes ("the place and date adorn"). She also doesn't like the part where the engineer, who was killed instantly, had time to write to his widow. I think she's judging the song too harshly. It has a nice tune, and some of the facts are correct. A tragedy like that deserves better lyrics, but the poet had to act fast in order to sell copies while the news was fresh. Poems at that time had to rhyme, and it takes a genius to write great rhyming poems. The commonplaces she dislikes were the currency of popular poetry back then. One might as well complain that, nowadays, action movies feature loud noises and exploding bodies.

This song (Victor 20863), sung by Mr. & Mrs. J.W. Baker, was recorded during the famous Bristol (TN) sessions of August, 1927, which catapulted the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to fame. Jim and Flora Baker were from Wise, VA, and Flora was a 1st cousin of Sara & Maybelle Carter. Unlike her cousins, they never recorded again, leaving only two songs behind: this one and a duller song about various relatives buried on the banks of the Tennessee River. I don't know if the Bakers decided they didn't like performing or if no one invited them back to make more records.


Complete Lyrics:
1. The Southern Railway had a wreck at ten o'clock one morn;
Near Hodges and Newmarket grounds, the place and date adorn.
On the twenty-fourth of September, the year nineteen and four
Was when that awful wreck occurred to both the rich and poor.

2. The trains were going east and west, and speeding on their way;
They ran together on a curve, and what a wreck that day.
The cars were busted and torn and split and spread across the track;
You see a picture of the wreck just over on the back.

3. Conductor on the west-bound train had made a bad mistake;
He never read his orders right, and caused that awful fate.
He hurt one hundred and a half and there were seventy dead;
I hope he has forgiveness now, and lives without a dread.

4. The engineer on the east-bound train had kissed his darling wife
Before he got on board his train, then he had to give his life.
I trust that he was pure in heart, and now is with the blest,
And that his wife will meet him there, and be with him at rest.

5. They found a note the man had wrote, and this is what it said:
"Please take me home and bury me." That filled them all with dread.
Found his body cold in death, and then they sent him home
And buried him with long-gone friends with whom he used to roam.

6. And, oh, the men and women's moans did echo through the air;
Such cries was never heard before from humans in despair.
The little children cried aloud for mercy to their God;
But now they all are dead and gone, and under earthly sod.

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