Wreck of the Old 97

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While on vacation this Christmas, I heard on a radio station Johnny Cash's "Wreck Of The Old 97" The lyrics make reference to "Monroe,VA , Spencer, Danville and White Oak Mountain" Are any of these places in CSX territory? Or is it somewhere on the Southern? Thanks, DH

-- Danny Harmon (Distsig@aol.com), December 29, 1999


While talking with my father before he passed away, I was browsing thru his record collection, and found a song in which the title or chorus was "Ridin' the Atlantic Coastal Lines". I'll search for it on my next visit to Mom's, and pass on the title, artist, and label for all to enjoy.

-- Russell Underwood (Jay611@home.com), January 04, 2000.

As an aside, this subject is an example of a fading past. Country music during the depression years and through the war years seemed to have a firm base in railroading.

Jimmy Rogers, the "Singing Brakeman" is considered by many people to be one of the founding influences of Country Music, as we know it today. I do not know the facts about his employment as a brakeman other than perhaps it was in Mississippi. M&O or IC?

Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Snow often gave credit to "The Singing Brakeman" as influences on their careers.

Hank Snow, who died just a few weeks ago had a LP (33 1/3 rpm)album out in the late fifties or early sixties that had a painting of a train of ACL "Vents" on the cover.

Roy Acuff, and his "Wabash Cannonball" along with "The Wreck of The Old 97", were staples in the Country/Folk music. Johnny Cash was much later in re-recording this favorite. Again, perhaps Roy Acuff may have recorded the earlier or original version. Later, the early version was given some criticism to the part "he turned to his black greasy fireman, and said throw on a little more coal." The defense to the criticism was that it was not racial, since most firemen white or black, were covered with black coal dust, oil, and grease from the engine.

Having been born into a large extended ACL,family in 1939, much identity and pride among railroad workers was taken from the amount of country music songs containing railroad content. Unfortunately, many of these songs of railroad heritage seem to be lost and forgotten.

SAL's Orange Blossom Special, Casey Jones, Ben Dewberry the brave engineer, Hobo Bill's last ride, and many, many, more songs chronicled the railroad life on a personal basis. Johnny Cash, probably is the last Country Singer to give attention railroad songs.

Alas, nostalgic as it may seem, these songs were not best heard on a crystal set with earphones or "with earphones in a wash tub" so several persons could listen simultaneously. Few ACL section houses in Florida had electricity.

The singing "Gandy Dancer's" is another subject. Watching section hands singing while lining track, spiking rails, or lifting heavy rails and frogs was quite an experience. One laborer took the lead and the songs syncronized the groups lifting, spiking, and lining of track.

Charles Kuralt, had a segment on his "On the Road" television series of a section gang in (I believe New Orleans or Mississippi Export RR) lining track.

It was a last example of the old SAL & ACL, section or extra gangs lining track. The foreman several feet back with his head down on the rail, sighting down the track. Five or six laborers with lining bars between their legs, backs to the rails, clicking the bars against the rails in unison. The lead singer singing a Black folk chant/song, and as the precise moment of effort was to be given, shouted "Joe." The result was several feet of trank literally jumping an inch or so. Without such syncronization the manual tasks of trackwork would have been impossible.

I apologize for digressing from the original question, but the question opened a link to the SAL/ACL of the past. Perhaps keying fadeing memories among us of a time gone by.

-- Curtis E. Denmark Jr. (curtisd@knology.net), December 30, 1999.

The wreck of Fast Mail and Express #97, immortalized in "The Wreck of the Old 97" occurred on the Southern at Danville VA. All the places mentioned in the song are in Southern territory. Southern had a huge locomotive and car shops facility at Spencer NC--now site of NC Museum of Transportation.

-- Lamar Wadsworth (LW.Sou.Ry.steam@juno.com), December 29, 1999.

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