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Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932

Band A2

Based on an event of September 27, 1903, "The Wreck of the Old 97" is today one of the most popular American ballads (see Laws, pp.213-14), but when Gordon first encountered it in 1923, as a text fragment sent to Adventure, it was unfamiliar to him. In January 1924 he published a composite text based on three versions sent to him by readers. The same month, Henry Whittier's phonograph recording was issued, which led to the song's national popularity when it was copied later that year by Vernon Dalhart. When Gordon began his Harvard-sponsored recording trip in the fall of 1925, one of his first ventures into the field led him after the composers of the song. This recording of Fred Lewey and those of C. W. Noell, who also claimed a hand in the composition of the song, were the results.

The complicated and fascinating story of Gordon's subsequent role in the copyright litigation concerning the song has been told by Norm Cohen (Cohen B.). Gordon played an important role in tracing the history of the song, and he continued to collect versions of it after this recording was made. The index to his manuscript collection at the Library of Congress includes some ten additional variants.

By the time Gordon came to the song its history was no longer easy to unravel. A number of singers had their own versions, and at least three songmakers had produced songs on the subject, which had mixed in different forms. Eventually one of the songmakers, David Graves George, sued RCA Victor for royalties on their recording of Dalhart. The trial lasted from 1929 to 1933. Gordon, as a defense witness, used the recording given here, along with other information, to help Victor build the case that Lewey and C. W. Noell, who had sung their song about the wreck together in the years immediately after it's composition, had at least as much claim for composing the song as George. Here as in other areas of his research, Gordon treated his folksong collecting as a scientific endeavor; he was seeking evidence to help solve a problem.

Lewey's performance is noteworthy not only because of his claim for it as the original of this now famous song, but also because of the way it tells the story. Of special interest to folklorists is the line, "He said he'd pull his train on time into Spencer or he'd jerk it right square into hell." This expresses a common occupational belief. For example, in the lumberwoods there are stories and songs about a man who swears to finish his job or eat his supper in hell. This detail is not present in later variants of the song, but may represent oral traditions concerning the wreck.

OLD NINETY SEVEN [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A6, ms. NC4
Fred Lewey
Concord, N.C.
Oct 15, 1925

One bright Sunday evening I stood on a mountain
Just watching the smoke from below.
It was springing from a long slender smokestack
Way down on the southern road.

It was Ninety Seven, the fastest train
That the south has ever seen;
But she run too fast on that fatal Sunday evening,
And the death list numbered fourteen

Chorus:
Did she ever pull in? No she never pulled in,
Though at one forty-five she was due;
For hours and hours has the switchman been
watching
For the fast mail that never came through.

The engineer was a fast brave driver
On that fatal Sunday eve,
And his fireman leaned far out at Lynchburg
Waiting for the signal to leave.

When he got aboard, well, he threw back his throttle
And although his air was bad
People all said when he passed Franklin Junction
That you couldn't see the men in the cab.

Did he ever pull in? No he never pulled in,
Though at one forty-five he was due
For hours and hours has the switchman been
watching
For the fast mail that never came through

There's a mighty bad road from Lynchburg to
Danville,
And although he knew this well
He said he'd pull his train on time into Spencer
Or he'd jerk it right square into hell.

When he hit the grade from Lima to Danville
His whistle began to scream;
He was found when she wrecked with his hand on
the throttle
Where he'd scalded to death from the steam.

Did he ever pull in? No he never pulled in,
Though at one forty-five he was due;
For hours and hours has the switchman been
watching
For the fast mail that never came through

 

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