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

Band B7 and B8

In January 1932 a salesman from the Amplion Company came to the Library of Congress to demonstrate the company's new microphone and disc recorder. After a long spoken sales pitch (which is on the record from which this selection is taken), salesman Douglas Cooke turned the microphone over to Gordon, who sang a portion of "Charlie Snider"—which he identified as an early version of "Casey Jones"—and then whistled a tune fragment and barked twice.

ROBERT W. GORDON TESTING EQUIPMENT [MP3 file]
Gordon disc 63A
Washington, D. C.
January 1932

Spoken by R. W. Gordon:
I'm going to make a, uh, test for sustained note with a portion of one of the early versions of "Casey Jones."

Sung:
Charlie Snyder was a good engineer,
Told the fireman never to fear,
All I wanted was the water and the coal,
Put your head out the window, watch the drivers roll.

Spoken:
I'm now going to test by whistling at about three feet from the microphone.

It is not surprising that Gordon sang "one of the early versions of ‘Casey Jones'" for the test recording. He was gearing up for another case study. Like "The Wreck of the Old 97," a song about Casey Jones was copyrighted, and Gordon had been approached to act as an expert witness in a court case about it. Eventually the case was settled out of court, but in the meantime he had assembled his evidence.

This case was even more complex than that of "The Wreck of the Old 97." Vaudevillians Newton and Seibert had copyrighted their version of the song about Jones in 1909. But, as with Harney's ragtime song, "The Prisoner's Song," and others that Gordon studied, the song was based on earlier folksongs. Norm Cohen's preliminary study (Cohen A) showed that the various strains of folksong about railroad accidents which coalesced around the Casey Jones theme reflect two traditions—the Anglo-American vulgar ballad and the Afro-American blues-ballad. For Gordon, the confluence of these two traditions was familiar territory.

Gordon devoted several columns to Casey Jones in Adventure, and the indexes to his materials at the Library of Congress refer to some fifty-three texts (including one from Carl Sandburg) sent to Adventure, as well as some others from various sources.

This particular performance of "Casey Jones" is significant for a number of reasons. It is of the type which predates the vaudeville song. The first and third verses, commonly found as "Jay Gould's Daughter," here are about Vanderbilt; Perrow (p. 163) collected similar verses in Mississippi in 1909. "Old Bill Jones" rather than "Casey" is the engineer, and a "Cannonball/East Colorado" verse, found in a number of other blues-ballads, is included.

Also significant is that Gordon was collecting from a collector—as with so many of his other recordings. Although recorded in Charlottesville, Francis H. Abbot was from Bedford county, on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1923 he and Alfred J. Swan published Eight Negro songs [From Bedford Co. Virginia]. These were songs which Abbot had collected in the county and which he sang for Swan. The collection was meant for singing; Abbot contributed a glossary and general remarks at the beginning so that singers could follow the dialect of his informants (Abbot, p. 4). Unlike Gordon, who titled his song "Casey Jones," Abbot called his song "Vanderbilt's Daughter." He noted that it was "a railroad song which exists in many versions. I give the one the colored boys sing in Bedford County" (Abbot, p. 41). He included a lengthy glossary for the song, and one verse which he did not sing for Gordon.

This came after the sixth verse:

He look at de watah, an' de watah wuz low,
look at his watch, an' de watch wuz slow,
look at de fiuhman an' shuk his head, said:
"Jim, we mout mek it, but we'll bofe be dead."

(Abbot, p. 45)

CASEY JONES [MP3 file]
Gordon disc 73B
Francis H. Abbot
Charlottesville, Virginia
March 24, 1932

Vanderbilt's daughter said before she died,
There was two more roads that she wanted to ride.
Everybody wondered what them roads could be.
They was the East Colorado and the Santa Fe.

East Colorado is the best of all,
They got a train they call the Cannonball.
It runs so fast that the passengers can't see,
Cause bound to make connections with the Santa Fe.

Vanderbilt said that before he died,
He was goin' to fix the bumpers so the ‘boes couldn't ride.
If they ride they have to ride the rods,
And trust their lives in the hands of God.

Got up one mornin', t'was a-drizzlin' rain,
Couldn't see nothin' but a C & O train.
Up in the cab was Old Bill Jones,
He been a good engineer, but he's dead and gone.

Old Bill Jones, he was a good engineer,
Says to the fireman, Jim you need-a fear,
All I want is boiler hot,
Goin' to make it to the junction by twelve o'clock.

He run a hundred miles before he stop;
There weren't but one minute in between the block.
He said he weren't runnin' at all,
He said he'd give a hundred dollars just to get the high ball.

He reversed the engine, threw the lever back,
Twenty-seven jumbos jumped the track.
He hollered to the fireman, says Jim you'd better jump,
Cause two locomotives is about to bump.

If they bump they gonna bend the rail,
If they bump they gonna bend the rail,
If they bump they gonna bend the rail,
There won't be nobody living here to tell the tale.

Spoken by Francis Abbot:
Sung by Francis H. Abbot, Charlottesville, Virginia, March the twenty-fourth, Nineteen thirty-two.

 

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