Long have I been familiar with the Grateful Dead ballad of that name, at whose lyrics I once giggled mischievously and thought I was getting away with something as I listened on my walkman headphones in bed late of a school night:
Come round the bend
You know it’s the end
The fireman screams and
The engine just gleams
Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you better
watch your speed
Years later I heard the traditional version by Mississippi John Hurt, with that one eerie verse that always sticks in my head, about his wife’s cold practicality upon hearing of her husband’s death:
Mrs. Casey when she heard the news
Sitting on her bedside, she was lacing up her shoes
Children, children now hold your breath
You will draw a pension at your Papa’s death
And of course there’s the Johnny Cash version… and Josh Ritter has a line about him in To the Dogs or Whoever, which I figured was a reference to all these other roots folk songs, since that’s sort of his M.O…. So I always assumed Casey Jones to be a purely folkloric figure, like Clementine, Peggy-o, John Henry, Fennario and Ichabod Crane. Specifically, I thought he was ye archetypal train engineer, in blue and white striped overalls with soot all over his face and a corncob pipe in his mouth, whistling dixie as he drove The Little Engine that Could up that mountain.
Not so, as it turns out. In fact, Casey Jones was a real, flesh and blood train conductor in the 1890s, who was so dedicated to his job and so good at it that he ended up as a national hero, with his face on a stamp and everything. He once saved a little girl from getting run over by a train by climbing down out of the cab onto the cowcatcher and snatching her up right off the tracks. He drove the famous “cannonball run” at eighty miles an hour between Chicago and New Orleans. He had a special way of blowing a train whistle so that whenever a train he was driving pulled into a station, you knew it was him at the tiller. And in 1900, on a densely foggy night passing through Memphis, Tennessee, he stayed onboard a doomed locomotive to save its passengers and crew. There was a stationary train idling on the same track as his own, and though he couldn’t prevent the collision, he managed to slow the train enough before impact that he himself was the only casualty.
Hence all these songs about him.
And what do you know, there’s an even older version of the song, by a fellow named Wallace Saunders, who was a friend of the real Casey Jones and worked with him on the railroad, which tells the story of his death.
Trust research to destroy your childhood illusions.