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The Case of Casey Jones

04/29/2010

In the third grade a fellow classmate dressed in a worn, white t-shirt brought in a tape cassette made specially for me and labeled, ‘Casey Jones’, the hit Grateful Dead song. Fifteen or so years later and that’s still the sweetest thing a boy has ever done for me. I wish I could remember his name or any other memories of him. Fourth grade came and our class was mixed with the big, bad fifth graders and I’m afraid my friend disappeared in the crowd. If I ever find him again, it’ll be a match made in Grateful Dead heaven.

For this reason alone, ‘Casey Jones’ would be the Grateful Dead song that would always stand out to me. Not sure why a coked out railroad engineer appealed to me at such a young age, but I’d guess it’s the folk hero style and cautionary tale that grabbed my attention. I can positively say that I always wondered, ‘why Casey Jones? Who is this guy? And how did a coke head get a hold of a train?’. When my dad, (longtime Deadhead and my tutor of all things Dead), enthusiastically requested a post about Casey and his train, I figured now was a good time to answer these questions.

The Real Casey Jones

To my welcomed surprise, I didn’t have to dig too hard to find out that Casey Jones was very much real. Of course, like many folk heroes, facts have been distorted and all together reinvented for the sake of storytelling. Lucky for us, there’s a whole museum in Mississippi dedicated to the real life and death of Casey Jones: The Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum. Inspired by Bruce Gurner’s passion for storytelling, history, and the railroad, this museum chronicles the real story of the locally famous Casey Jones.

AmericanFolklore.net also offers a nice summary about Jones’s life,

“Casey Jones, that heroic railroad engineer of the Cannonball, was known as the man who always brought the train in on time. He would blow the whistle so it started off soft but would increase to a wail louder than a banshee before dying off. Got so as people would recognize that whistle and know when Casey was driving past.”

The only known authentic photograph of Casey in the cab of an engine. Courtesy of http://www.watervalley.net

The Last Run

It would all come to a tragic, but heroic end after a run on April 29th, 1900…

I have to interrupt myself. I just realized that today, April 29th, 2010, marks 110 years exactly since Casey’s fatal trip. I’m trying to contain my nerdy excitement over this strange coincidence.

…As I was saying, on April 29th, 1900, Casey Jones volunteered to take a late run going out of Memphis to Canton. The train was scheduled to leave at 11:15pm but didn’t actually leave until 12:50am (April 30th), one hour and thirty-five minutes late. Casey was determined to make up for lost time…

“About four a.m., when he had nearly made up all the time on the run, Casey rounded a corner near Vaughin, Mississippi and saw a stalled freight train on the track. He shouted for his fireman to jump. The fireman made it out alive, but Casey Jones died in the wreck, one hand on the brake and one on the whistle chord.” (www.americanfolklore.net)

On The Track to Folklore

As tragic as this story is, there’s no real reason that it, out of so many, should stain the hearts and minds of America. Except for one: Wallace Saunders. Saunders was an engine wiper at the railroad shop in Canton and was believed to be friends with Jones. With a knack for storytelling and songwriting, Saunders wrote The Ballad of Casey Jones which would soon spread along the railroad tracks of this great country. Read the original lyrics by clicking here.

The Grateful Dead would perform The Ballad of Casey Jones many times. By 1970, Robert Hunter, inspired by a dream, wrote a song with a different take on the life of Casey Jones that included “the folk tradition of cocaine songs”.

This strangely upbeat version didn’t please ol’ Bruce Gurner too much…

“Probably the oddest attempt at a song using the Casey Jones name was written for The Grateful Dead (words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia), an over-the-hill rock and roll band with a cult-like following. It was more about cocaine than railroading and is hardly worth repeating here.” (www.watervalley.net)

Yikes.

Nevertheless, ‘Casey Jones’ would become a Grateful Dead favorite and I think it would at least make Gurner happy to know that this modern day song helped spread the word about his beloved Casey Jones. I sure as hell wouldn’t have discovered the real Jones had I never been introduced to the Grateful Dead.

So now that the mystery is no longer mysterious, I can listen to ‘Casey Jones’ and chuckle at the idea of a coked out engineer facing his death and not feel too bad about it. Because we all know that wasn’t who the real man was. Besides, if I died a horrible death and people were singing about it 110 years later with added drug-inspired subplots, I wouldn’t be arguing.

110 years ago tonight, Casey began the trip to Canton that led to his death. Here’s to you Casey…

“This old engine makes it on time
Leaves Central Station ’bout a quarter to nine
Hits River Junction at seventeen to
At a quarter to ten you know it’s travelling again

Trouble ahead, the lady in red
Take my advice you’d be better off dead
Switchman’s sleeping, train Hundred and Two
Is on the wrong track and headed for you”

Casey Jones

References and Links

Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum

AmericanFolklore.net

Annotated Lyrics

Comment below or email me at becomingdead1@gmail.com. To subscribe, click on the “Sign me up!” button to the right and receive emails when new entries are posted.

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