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Railway Express

Once upon a time everyone rode on the railroad, had a piano (or parlor pump organ) and probably a gramophone or a phonograph. Trains were a necessary, interesting and romantic part of daily life. Songs about the journeys, the destinations, the innumerable wrecks and disasters and of course the trains, were abundant. These songs were recorded by many artists were extremely popular and sold thousands of discs. Some prominent examples are "The Wabash Cannonball" and "The Wreck of the 01d 97". A contemporary example is the one about the Hinton rail disaster.

But "Casey Jones" is THE train song for the whole span of recorded music and there seem to be at least three versions of Casey in both music and lyrics. So far I've found over fifty recorded examples, including some wacky variants.Would you believe "Casey Jones Went Down on the Robert E. Lee"? Anything by Vernon Dalhart sold well, and we still will find these records at Sally Ann and Good Will stores, especially "In the Baggage Coach Ahead". The railroad engineer in the days of steam engines was the great folk hero...small boys were saying "when I grow up I want to be an engineer", as they do today about astronauts.

Perhaps beyond sentimentality and fascination for death and disaster was the way in which the sounds and the rhythm of the trains could be so easily incorporated into the music. For lighter types of songs, simulated railroad sound effects were often added. For comic records especially of the "hayseed" variety, as Uncle Josh on his various trips by Cal Stewart, whistles and bells backed up by hissing steam were essential.

One of the earliest Canadian recordings in my collection is a Berliner 10" Concert Grand, single sided, number 5000, pressed in Montreal in 1901, titled "Let Me Off At Buffalo", by S.H. Dudley. As written in 1895 by Dillon brothers, Harry and John, the correct title was "PUT me off..." perhaps "LET me off..." was friendlier.

Both Columbia and Edison had train songs for those happy owners of cylinder machines. Somes examples of Blue Amberols are: from 1912 - #1501 - Gene Austin's version of "The Railroad Blues" and Billy Murray with "Casey Jones" #1550 and from 1913 Collins & Harlan doing "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam'" #1719.

Right to the end of 78 rpm records, railroad songs just kept on coming down the track. A lot of us have good memories of listening and dancing to the big bands on records at parties (remember tea dances?). Some of the best are: Ellington's "Take the A Train", Miller's "Tuxedo Junction"," Chatanooga Choo Choo" and "I've got A Gal in Kalamazoo"; along with Ella or Dinah doing "Sentimental Journey" and "Blues in the Night" by Peggy Lee or der Bingle and don't forget Judy Garland's "The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" or "The Trolley Song".

Throughout the LP period (is that almost over too!) the railroad songs were recorded by the Weavers, Mitch Miller & Peter, Paul & Mary. Enhanced by stereo, faster tempos, better instrumentations and arrangements they sold well. My apologies at this point - Country & Western has much railroad material, which I don't know well enough to write about. Gordon Lightfoot has several recordings of songs written and played by him about Canadian railways, most notably "Canadian Railroad Trilogy". Keep your ears open for CD offerings of a railroad theme, they are on the way or already arrived!