A while ago (Inside Bluegrass, June 1998), I wrote about the famous railroad song, The Wreck of the Old 97. That didn't get the song out of my system, though, and so, this spring, when we were driving through southern Virginia, I insisted we spend a few hours following, as closely as possible, the "mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville." The exercise was, of course, futile. The railroad line still exists, but the tracks where the wreck took place were rerouted long ago. All that's left is a small historical marker. The Old 97 Wreck centennial is only three years away. I bet no one remembers to celebrate it.
After the Virginia trip, I obtained a book by Katie Letcher Lyle, Scalded to Death by the Steam (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991) which is all about train wrecks that have become the subject of songs, including, of course, Old 97. The author points out that train wreck songs follow a formula as rigid as that used by the composers of the Homeric Epics (or broadside ballads, for that matter). The train wreck ballad is the Industrial-Revolution-turned-sour Epic: it starts out all brightness and light and often with the future promise of fulfilled love, but something goes wrong (late train runs, misread orders, failed brakes, landslides), and the engineer either dies instantly or lives only long enough to send a final message to his true love. Typically, the last verse has a moral about religious faith or domestic faithfulness or stoic preparation to meet your fate. In some cases, like this one, the fiancee is expected to remain faithful even after the hero's death. That's a heckuva lot more heroic and less optimistic than even our post-industrial Dilbert cubicle stories.
The train wreck song tradition seems to have been limited to Appalachia, even though bigger wrecks occurred in other states. There have been almost no songs written about airplane crashes, and the author quotes one David Morgan for the reason:
"If any man has invented a mechanism with just fifty percent of the steam locomotive's solid spiritual satisfaction, he hasn't applied for a patent yet."
When I was growing up, I listened repeatedly to several train-wreck records that my parents had bought before I was born. My two favorites were Old 97 and Number 9, both because of their wonderful tunes. I didn't discover until reading the Scalded book that Number 9 was fictional, a song made up by a professional hillbilly singer named Carson Robison, following tried-and-true formulas. He admitted that it was based on no actual train wreck. In two ways, it's a relief to know this -- I can honestly sing the song in honor of a mythical engineer, sort of like the Unknown Soldier of the Industrial Revolution -- and, at the same time, I don't feel the responsibility to go searching for the location of the actual wreck. The phrase "threw on the air" refers to air brakes. The best modern performance of this wonderful phony song is on Bob Bovee & Gail Heil's cassette Come Over and See Me Sometime (Marimac #9045). [Now available as a CD, Jawbone 002, from www.boveeheil.com]
On a cold winter night, not a star was in sight,
And the north wind came howling down the line;
There stood a brave engineer with his sweetheart so dear,
And the orders to pull old Number Nine.
He kissed her goodbye with a tear in his eye,
For the joy in his heart he could not hide;
And the whole world seemed bright when she told him that night
That tomorrow she'd be his blushing bride.
The wheels hummed a song as the train rolled along,
And the black smoke was pouring from the stack;
And the headlights agleam seemed to brighten his dream
Of tomorrow, when he'd be coming back.
He sped 'round the hill, and his brave heart stood still,
For a headlight was shining in his face;
And he whispered a prayer as he threw on the air,
For he knew this would be his final race.
In the wreck he was found, lying there on the ground,
And he asked them to raise his weary head;
As his breath slowly went, this message he sent
To the maiden who thought she would be wed.
"There's a little white home that I bought for our own,
For I thought we'd be happy bye and bye.
Now I'll leave it to you, for I know you 'II be true,
Till we meet at that golden gate, goodbye."