Casey Jones was an American railwayman who, in 1900, while racing his train to make up for lost time, saw another stationary train on the track ahead. He ordered his fireman, Sim Webb, to jump off the moving train but refused to do so himself. Instead he died while bravely remaining on board trying to stop his train and blowing its warning whistle as it ploughed into the rear of the one ahead.
Furry Lewis was an itinerant Medicine Show musician who, in 1917, while jumping onto a moving train in order to avoid paying the fare, got his foot caught in a coupling and lost a leg. He continued making his living as a travelling guitarist and singer until 1923 when he finally decided that touring was just too difficult and settled down in Memphis as a street sweeper.
In 1927, 1928 and 1929 his street sweeping career was interrupted by the Vocalion record label who recruited him to record a total of 23 songs which were released on 78s before the Great Depression curtailed the demand for the Blues on record. Luckily the demand for street-sweepers never slackened and he continued to be employed by the City of Memphis Street Cleaning Department until he hung up his broom in 1966.
Of course by then, as you might have guessed, after apparently not even owning a guitar for 20 years, he’d been tracked down by the new Blues Revivalists (in 1959 in Furry’s case) and had tentatively started a second musical career that became very successful until his death in 1981. At the peak of his fame second-time around he even opened for the Rolling Stones, aged over 70, in front of crowds of over 50,000.
Which all sort of makes the fact that one of his most famous songs is the definitive version of the Casey Jones railroad tragedy classic a little ironic.
The original version was written almost immediately after the crash in 1900, by a railway-worker friend of Casey’s called Wallace Saunders. Over the next 30 years or so the song became very popular with over 40 versions being recorded by other artists.
Furry’s version is unique, telling a good deal about Casey’s (or Kassie’s, as Vocalion/Furry misspelt it) earlier life before even reaching the famous accident.
It’s also long at over 6 minutes. So long in fact that in the days when master recordings were made on aluminium, shellac or lacquer discs which could only hold about four minutes of song, it had to be released as two separate tracks, thereby withholding the climax of the story to what was technically the B-Side.
Furry’s version is also beautifully understated and atmospherice, partly because he manages to make his guitar sound like a train. There’s the finger-picked, rhythmically undulating but repetitive tune. And then underneath that there’s, what at first sounds like, a ’jug’ bass (see ABON 0082) but isn’t. In fact it’s Furry’s guitar on which he is simultaneously creating a bass drone that sounds remarkably like the counter-point chugging of train heading steadily and inevitably, but without hiatus, down the track with not a chance of stopping soon. And, of course, there weren’t many people more qualified than Furry to know exactly what that sounded like.
The two parts recorded as separate tracks are available on various Furry compilations. The only place I know of where the two tracks run together is on the 6-CD ‘Anthology Of American Folk Music’: Amazon