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Why was Casey Jones an American folk hero?

Why was Casey Jones an American folk hero?



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Casey Jones was a locomotive engineer who became a folk hero after his death in a train crash in 1900 was commemorated in a number of songs. According to legend, Jones died with one hand on the train’s whistle and the other hand on its brake.

Born John Luther Jones in Missouri in 1863, the future folk hero moved with his family as a boy to Cayce, Kentucky, the town from which he got his nickname. As a teenager, he began working for the railroads and later moved to Jackson, Tennessee. On April 29, 1900, Jones, then an engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad, arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, having driven a train there from Canton, Mississippi. In Memphis, he found out the engineer scheduled to make the return run that night was sick, so Jones volunteered to take his place. When he pulled out of the Memphis station in the early hours of April 30, the train was running late so he hurried to make up for lost time. As the train rounded a curve near Vaughan, Mississippi, it collided with another train on the tracks, but not before Jones told his fireman to jump to safety. Jones remained on board, supposedly to try to slow the train and save his passengers, and was the only person to die in the accident.

Following Jones’s death, Wallace Saunders, an African-American railroad worker in Mississippi, developed a ballad about the fallen engineer that became popular with other men in the railroad yards. From there, a version of tune was performed on the vaudeville circuit. In 1909, a pair of song writers published “Casey Jones,” based in part on the earlier melodies; it went on to become a hit for various recording artists. The songs helped turn Jones into a folk hero and his story later was dramatized on radio and TV. In the 1950s, his house in Jackson became a museum.


Casey Jones

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Casey Jones, byname of John Luther Jones, (born March 14, 1864, southeastern Missouri, U.S.—died April 30, 1900, near Vaughan, Miss.), American railroad engineer whose death as celebrated in the ballad “Casey Jones” made him a folk hero.

When Jones was in his teens, his family moved across the Mississippi River to Cayce, Ky., the town name (pronounced the same as Casey) providing his nickname. An engineer with a penchant for speed and virtuoso use of the whistle, he was making up time when his fireman warned him of a train ahead. After telling the fireman to jump, Casey died in the collision, one hand on the brake, the other on the whistle. An engine wiper, Wallace Saunders, wrote the first ballad about him. Another version was published by Lawrence Siebert and Eddie Newton in 1909 and became a popular hit in vaudeville. Other versions appear in railroad, construction, hobo, radical, and World War I song collections, and there are versions in French, German, and Afrikaans. Later versions transferred Casey to Western railroads, and some made him into a roistering ladies’ man, to his widow’s distress.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


During the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago, Illinois, in 1893, IC was charged with providing commuter service for the thousands of visitors to the fairground. A call was sent out for trainmen who wanted to work there. Jones answered it, spending a pleasant summer there with his wife. He shuttled many people from Van Buren Street to Jackson Park during the exposition. It was his first experience as an engineer in passenger service and he liked it.

In 1895, a group of children wandered on the tracks where Casey's train was passing through. All but one little girl got off the tracks. Casey seeing the child on the track, he yelled to fellow engineer Bob Stevenson to reverse the train and yelled to the girl to get off the tracks in almost the same breath. Realizing that she was still immobile, he raced to the tip of the pilot or cowcatcher and braced himself on it, reaching out as far as he could to pull the frightened but unharmed girl from the rails.


Casey Jones' railroad blues Folk hero: Legend of the engineer who refused to jump grew from a workman's song.

Perhaps some railroader sitting in a roundhouse, locomotive cab or division headquarters, will remember the April 30, 1900, ride that took John Luther Jones, better known as Casey Jones, to the "Promised Land," and successfully transformed him into an American folk hero on the dimension of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed or Pecos Bill.

"Come all you rounders for I want you to hear, the story of a brave engineer," begins the Mississippi Delta blues-style song written by Wallace Saunders, an African-American who knew Jones and worked as an engine wiper in the Canton, Miss., roundhouse.

The story told of a brave engineer

Casey Jones was the rounder's name,

On a heavy six-eight wheeler he rode to fame.

Legend has it William Leighton, an Illinois Central Railroad engineer, had heard Saunders singing his song in the railyards and offered him a pint of gin for the lyrics.

He gave the song to his two brothers, who performed it on the vaudeville stage and managed to turn it into a popular tune.

When T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton, also vaudevillians, revised the song in 1909, it not only swept the nation but also transformed Casey's last ride into a fictional account set to ragtime.

Milton Bagby, writing in American History last year, suggested that Jones would have simply been another statistic had someone not written a song about him.

"At the moment, Jones was just another unfortunate railroad employee killed on the job. With more than 2,000 railroad accidents in 1900 alone, many of them fatal, such stories were back-page news.

"If there was any controversy, the Illinois Central settled it promptly. Engineer Jones of the passenger train, who lost his life in the accident, was alone responsible,' read the company's accident report. The matter was forgotten," he writes.

Jones was already something of a legend at his death because he was a highly respected locomotive engineer among his peers and for his six-tone calliope whistling, which presaged his coming up the tracks in rural Mississippi.

Born John Luther Jones near Cayce, Ky., on March 14, 1864, he began his railroading career when he was 16, learning telegraph at the local rural depot. He hired out on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad as a brakeman in the 1880s and later advanced to fireman. He went to work for the Illinois Central in 1888 and was promoted to engineer.

A handsome man who stood 6-feet-4 with closely cropped hair, Jones was the epitome of the hard-driving engineer.

He married Janie Brady, the daughter of the owner of the railroad boardinghouse where he lived, and set up housekeeping in Jackson, Tenn.

It was there around the boardinghouse dinner table, filled with other men named Jones, that he picked up the nickname of "Casey," derived from his hometown.

It was raining when Jones and Sim Webb, his fireman, chugged into Memphis, after completing their northbound run from Canton.

The pair volunteered to take the southbound run of Train No. 1, The New Orleans Special, and not the fictional Cannonball, whose engineer had called off sick, on its 188-mile run to Canton.

By the time the train with engine No. 382 and 12 cars left Memphis, it was already 95 minutes behind schedule. Roaring southward at speeds near 100 mph, Jones managed to make up 60 minutes between Memphis and Grenada.

"We're going into Canton on time," he told Webb.

At Vaughn, Miss., there was trouble. Racing along at 75 mph at 3: 52 a.m., Jones rounded a curve and saw the red marker lights of a caboose directly ahead.

He plowed into the caboose and two boxcars of a stalled freight train that hadn't quite cleared the main track.

"Mr. Casey! We're going to hit something," testified Webb later.

"You jump, I'll stay!" he said.

"You jump, too," replied Webb.

"No, I'll stay at my post," said Jones.

"I obeyed his command," said Webb.

As the train roared ahead, Jones yanked back on the reverse lever, applied the brakes and sand in a desperate attempt to stop the skidding engine.

By the time No. 382 hit, he had reduced speed from 75 mph to between 35 and 50 mph, which probably averted even greater calamity.

Jones was mortally wounded in the throat as his engine came to rest on its side. Removed from the cab by railroad workers, he was placed on a baggage cart and taken to the Vaughn depot, where he later died.

In 1947, Lucius Beebe, journalist and noted railroad historian, and Charles Clegg, photographer, with Casey's widow watching, unveiled a monument at the railroader's grave in Jackson, Tenn.


Ten Characters from American Folklore

folktale, folk tale, folklore, lore, legend, tall tale, Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, Sam Hyde, Ethan Allen, Pecos Bill, John Henry, Daniel Boone, Jesse James, Casey Jones, Paul Bunyan, literature

  • Internet access or printed copies of the stories listed below
  • Ten Characters from American Folklore work sheet (answer key in Assessment section below)

Pecos Bill, Daniel Boone, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry: Those men of fact and folklore are part of the fabric of the American legend. In this lesson in cultural literacy, students learn about them and about six other characters from America's folk history.

The best way for students to complete this activity is to access the American Folklore Web site. If students do not have computer access, provide the ten stories to students by (1) recording the stories and making the tape available in a listening center or (2) printing the stories and creating a book.

After students have read the ten stories, have them complete the Ten Characters from American Folklore work sheet. An answer key appears in the Assessment section below.

Online Resources: Ten Characters from American Folklore

Students will achieve a score of at least 80 percent on the work sheet. ANSWER KEY: 1. Davy Crockett 2. Johnny Appleseed 3. Sam Hyde 4. Ethan Allen 5. Pecos Bill 6. John Henry 7. Daniel Boone 8. Jesse James 9. Casey Jones 10. Paul Bunyan


10 of those

Geoffrey Thomas

25% off RRP

Get 1 point for every £1 you spend. 100 points earns a £2.50 voucher.

The Legendary Casey Jones brings together many of Geoffrey Thomas&rsquos short stories for the first time, each brimming with the big heartedness, warmth and homespun humour that he is known for.

Sweeping through southern deltas, western prairies and colonial outposts, Geoffrey Thomas introduces a host of extraordinary characters in his mesmerising tales of American heritage: blacksmiths, farmers, frontiersmen try to get by a brave railroad engineer becomes a national hero a Native American girl changes the course of history.

Perfect for both Middle Grade and Young Adult readers and teeming with gospel truth and encouragement, Thomas&rsquos stories are a delight.


John Henry: A Match-up of Man vs. Machine

Triumph or Tragedy?

John Henry ©1996, United States Postal Service. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

John Henry was a real African American worker who helped to build railroads through the mountains of West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Before the days of heavy earth-moving construction machinery, railroads used men armed with picks, hammers, and dynamite to cut away mountainsides to level the earth for train tracks. If the mountains were too big to cut away, work crews tunneled through them.

John Henry was a "steel driver" on one of these railroad construction crews. His job was to hammer a steel drill bit into the rock while another man turned the drill to make a deep narrow hole. Later another crew member would put dynamite in the hole. When the dynamite went off, the rock cracked and men would come in to a haul away the pieces.

John Henry was famous for his huge size and great strength. It seemed like he could hammer all day without getting tired! One day while working on the Great Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, his captain (boss) was excited about a new steam-powered drill that had just arrived. Could it speed up their work by drilling faster than the teams of men? They would put it to the test. John Henry was the strongest steel driver, so he took on the machine.

The pressure was tremendous. His pride was at stake. Worse, all the steel drivers would lose their jobs if the machine won! John Henry worked harder than he ever did before. And, he beat the machine! But he worked so hard that his heart gave out. Even though the machine lost the race that day, it beat John Henry in another way: It was no more tired after the race than before. The next day, it would work just as hard while John Henry's family and friends prepared for his funeral. The steel drivers knew they wouldn't be driving steel for a living much longer.

His story became one of the most famous folk songs in America. Both black and white workers understood the pride John Henry felt in his work and his fear that machines would make his skills unneeded.


The Other Half of the Casey Jones Legend: His Wife

I t’s been 115 years since the fateful morning &mdash April 30, 1900 &mdash when railroad engineer John Luther Jones, called “Casey” after his hometown of Cayce, Ky., agreed to drive an extra midnight run between New Orleans and Chicago.

Anyone who’s heard the classic American song “The Ballad of Casey Jones” knows what happened next: Before dawn, near Vaughn, Miss., the train was flying down the track, trying to make up for lost time. The engine approached a spot where a freight train was moving off the track into a siding Jones saw that it was moving off the main rail too slowly, that his train wouldn’t be able to miss the end of the freight train. Jones hit the brakes but it was too late. He ordered his co-worker to jump but wouldn’t abandon the train himself. He died in the crash and one of his co-workers was so upset that he wrote a song about Jones. Meanwhile his wife, according to one version of the song, told her distraught children to stop crying over the news, because they had “another papa on the Salt Lake Line.”

That brief coda to the song was, in reality, a long epilogue to the true story of Casey Jones.

In the years following her husband’s untimely death, Mrs. Casey Jones appeared several times in the pages of TIME, and in the early years the magazine often took a semi-snarky tone when it came to her doings. In 1928, for example, she filed a lawsuit against a movie studio that was planning to make a Casey Jones movie without her permission. In 1934, she made news by participating in a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the railroad in the region.

“Widow Jones,” who the magazine had noted “looks well and buxom,” later called that TIME story “a conglomeration of lies.” (For example, Engine No. 638 was not in fact the number of the train on which Casey Jones died.) In her letter to the editor, she warned TIME to never again attempt to write about the Casey Jones story without her permission.

At first, the litigious widow who tries to stop a magazine from writing about her world-famous husband hardly seems worthy of serious consideration. But, to her, correcting errors about Casey Jones had been no laughing matter. Though her husband had died a hero’s death, she lived for nearly six more decades, world famous for a baseless allegation that she had not been faithful. In 1958, when she died, TIME finally set the record straight:

That legend was a legacy of bitterness to Janie Jones, Casey’s wife, mother of his daughter and two sons. For the next 58 years she lived with The Ballad of Casey Jones&mdashand with the cruel lines added to a Negro engine wiper’s mournful song by a Tin Pan Alley hack. “The Casey Jones song has haunted my whole life since the beginning of the century,” she once said. Memphis railroaders were known to fight with strangers who sang the slanderous lines. For a while, the ballad was banned in Jackson, Tenn., where Janie Jones lived out the long, lean years. With the help of a ghost writer, she tried to clear herself in a new version of the song: “My Casey, Husband Casey, who meant the world to me.”

It was no use. Thousands who never knew that Casey Jones had actually existed still sang of him&mdashand of the other papa on the Salt Lake Line. And last week, impoverished and bitter, Janie Jones, 92, died in Jackson. She had never remarried.

Read the full 1958 story, here in the TIME Vault:The Legacy of a Legend


Jonathan Luther "Casey" Jones

In an era when spectacular train wrecks were common, the fate of Illinois Central engineer Jonathan Luther Jones should not have aroused popular interest. Yet “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer” has become one of Tennessee’s great folk heroes and a prominent character in American railroad lore. The legend of Casey Jones owes its creation to a black engine wiper at the Illinois Central Roundhouse in Canton, Mississippi. Wallace Saunders composed the verses about his engineer friend that embellished the events of April 30, 1900, and made Casey Jones a legend.

Jones was born on March 14, 1863. His schoolteacher father moved the family to Cayce, Kentucky, when Jones was in his teens. There he watched the locomotives at the Mobile and Ohio Railroad yards and decided to make railroading his career. In 1878, at the age of fifteen, Jones left his family to work on the Mobile and Ohio. The road transferred him to Jackson, Tennessee, where he met and married Janie Brady in 1886. Jones established a reputation for staying on schedule while running the freight route between Jackson and Water Valley, Mississippi. He always announced his approach with a blast of the calliope whistle, which sounded like a whippoorwill in the night.

In January 1900 Jones was transferred to a passenger run between Memphis and Canton, Mississippi, which made up one leg of a four-train run linking Chicago and New Orleans. The “Cannonball Express” had a reputation for speed, and so did Jones. He completed his day’s work on the morning of April 29 and pulled train Number 1 into Memphis’s Poplar Street Station. The regular engineer for the Canton run was ill, and Jones agreed to double up. He asked that his favorite engine, Number 382, be readied for the return trip. The train was ninety-five minutes behind schedule when it left the station, but Jones and fireman Sim Webb were determined to make up the time over the 188-mile run. Nearing Vaughn, Mississippi, Jones was only two minutes behind schedule and within 15 miles of his destination. Up ahead, however, a freight train with a mechanical failure was unable to move off the main line onto a siding. When Jones saw the lights of the caboose, he yelled for Webb to jump. Jones stayed on the train to apply the brakes, thereby saving the lives of his passengers. The fireman escaped with minor injuries. No one but Jones died in the wreck when the engine slammed into the freight train’s caboose. The Illinois Central claimed to have issued warnings regarding the stalled trains, but Webb contended they saw no signals.

Wallace Saunders’s version of the story spread through the vaudeville circuit, and in 1909 Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton altered the lyrics and copyrighted a version of “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer.” Their version popularized the song and became the basis for over two hundred later versions by everyone from the Boy Scouts to the Grateful Dead. Jones has been immortalized by a postage stamp, books, and the Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum in Jackson. Although the songs often misrepresent the facts, they made the courage and heroism of the railroad man an American legend.


Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)

In the Charles Reich interview with Jerry Garcia, published as Garcia: Signpost To New Space, Garcia was asked if this song grates on him when he hears it.

He replied: "Sometimes, but that's what it's supposed to do. It's got a split-second little delay, which sounds very mechanical, like a typewriter almost, on the vocal, which is like a little bit jangly, and the whole thing is, I always thought it's a pretty good musical picture of what cocaine is like. A little bit evil. And hard-edged. And also that sing-songy thing, because that's what it is, a sing-songy thing, a little melody that gets in your head."

Let’s focus on the typewriter for a minute, because frankly, I think every aspect of this song has been pretty much talked through from beginning to end quite a number of times! Seriously. Upcoming generations will draw a blank when they encounter this typewriter analogy—although the characterization of the vocal mix having a mechanical-sounding split second delay is pretty evocative. Someday, scholars will have to add a footnote to Garcia’s statement, explaining what a “typewriter” was, and what kind of sound it made, and why it is or is not an apt metaphor for the way the vocal track sounds on the song. Maybe someday someone will write a song called “Daddy, What’s a Typewriter?” to go with “Daddy, What’s a Train?”

Trains. What was it Phil Lesh said about Grateful Dead songs? “Trains, cats, and cards..” or something like that.

“Casey Jones” is one of the band’s classic story songs, and it utilizes a classic American folk hero as its subject—AND it is about a train. How could things get any better?

I wrote a fairly complete annotation about the character of Casey Jones, whose story was told in “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was, in turn, performed by the Dead at least a couple of times during acoustic sets in 1970. The bare facts of the historical basis for the legend have been pretty well documented. (You can jump on over to http://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/kcj.html#casey if you really want the background.)

Robert Hunter, it is said, thought of the line: “Driving that train, high on cocaine,” and wrote it down, stuck it in his pocket, and pretty much forgot about it until it struck him that he might write a song around the line. Speculation abounds that Hunter wrote the song as a cautionary tale, with many hidden drug-reference meanings tucked away into the lyrics (including a wonderfully byzantine theory that if “white lady” is a nickname for cocaine, then “lady in red” is a reference to intravenous delivery of cocaine). Some have said that Hunter may have written it during the Festival Express tour, while the band was on a train, possibly high on something or other, making their way across Canada.

There is the whole thing about the word “jones,” itself, which was later used in the addiction sense by Barlow and Weir in “Throwing Stones.” Could “Casey Jones” be a reference to that sense of the word?

Did it matter? Does it now?

Well, I guess I have to think it could matter, depending, or else—why bother to think about the lyrics at all?

The irony of the song is that it is viewed as a druggy song by a druggy band, when there could be nothing more anti-drug than a song about someone who is involved in a disastrous and legendary accident while under the influence of drugs.

Double irony: it seems that many listeners and fans also embrace the song as a druggy song—witness the band’s performing it during their November 1978 appearance on the coke-drenched “Saturday Night Live.”

And, triple irony: band members themselves became embroiled in cocaine use, with Garcia himself arrested for possession.

Or maybe none of that is ironic in the least. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

In truth, the song is a catchy, bouncy rocker that, in concert, could gather tremendous momentum and power, especially during the build-up to the final “and you know that notion just crossed my mind.”

It’s been pointed out that, among the band’s potential top-40 hits, “Casey Jones” joins others like “Uncle John’s Band,” with its airplay-unfriendly “Goddam, well I declare,” and “Truckin’,” with the “living on reds and vitamin C and cocaine” line, as yet another potential hit that would never be allowed on the radio in most markets. “Wharf Rat,” with its groundbreaking F-bomb, was likely never a candidate for the charts, but the others—who knows?

I found a discussion of the song that claimed Hunter actually did try to clean up the song—substituting lines like “carried propane” for “high on cocaine.” But in the end, it was after all the initial inspiration for the song that did get written.

This is one of their “disaster impending” songs, as opposed to the “disaster narrowly averted” songs of the “Monkey and the Engineer” variety. (Are there other disaster narrowly averted songs? I’ve wondered idly at times.) Some songs are simply disasters described—“Jack Straw,” or “Me and My Uncle.” “Candyman” feels like disaster impending. But I can’t, offhand, think of others of the “narrowly averted” variety.

“Casey Jones” does have one of those aphorism-rich lyrics, though, and those can come in handy at the best and worst of times. “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” “Better watch your speed.” “Trouble with you is the trouble with me” (similar, perhaps, to “Can’t talk to you without talking to me” from “Althea”). “Take my advice, you’d be better off dead.” Well—maybe not that last one….

How does this song resonate for you? Do you have kids, and do you, like I did, sing it to them and change the words just a little bit? I’m pretty sure I managed to sing it as a lullaby at some point, cradling a small one in my arms.


Watch the video: casey jones (August 2022).