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"Casey Jones" is (very) loosely based on the real life happenings of the heroic engineer Casey Jones, who was the subject of the famous 1902 song "The Ballad Of Casey Jones
." It was doubtful that Jones was high on cocaine when he took over the train, and although his life was ended when he was hit by a train traveling the wrong way, he sacrificed his life so those on board could be saved.
In the book Garcia: A Signpost to New Space, Jerry Garcia was asked if this song grates on him when he hears it. The Dead frontman 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."
Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter came up with the line "Drivin' that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you'd better watch your speed," which he wrote down and put in his pocket. He didn't think of it as part of a song until he looked at it later and decided to complete the lyrics.
When they put the song together, Hunter looked for ways to omit the word "cocaine," which at the time was a controversial word for song lyrics (they had taken some heat for using "Goddamn" in "Uncle John's Band"). Hunter tried some other phrases - "whipping that chain," "lugging propane" - but couldn't find an acceptable substitute, so Casey Jones ended up high on cocaine as originally written.
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