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Vaughan, Mississippi

Casey Jones by Grateful Dead

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Trouble with you
Is the trouble with me
Got two good eyes
But you still don't see Read full Lyrics
The Casey Jones landmark
(thanks, Jeremy Atherton, 2002)
Train engineer Casey Jones bent over the Johnson bar of the Cannonball Express, peering ahead through a misty, rainy night as he made an epic train run. Simon T. Webb, his fireman, stood at his side. Visibility was poor on the windy track as it neared Vaughan, Mississippi, but Jones was determined to not only make the improbable deadline he’d been given, but to beat it.

They hit 75 miles per hour as they traveled through a one-and-a-half-mile-long curve heading towards Vaughan. Stomach cramps had caused the Cannonball Express’s usual engineer to call off work, leaving Jones to try take the over train’s run to Canton, Mississippi, with considerable lost time. It was a dangerous trek, but Jones always did love a challenge.

Webb was the first one to see red lights of a stalled train’s caboose on the tracks ahead. The fireman cried, “Oh my Lord, there’s something on the main line!” Without missing a beat, Jones shouted for Webb to jump from the vehicle. The fireman leapt out of the speeding steam engine, crashing heavily to the ground where he fell, unconscious. Jones sounded the train’s whistle, trying to warn anyone that might be ahead, and then hit the airbrakes. Astonishingly, he was able to bring the train from 75 to 35 miles per hour in less than 300 feet; but it wasn’t enough.

The Cannonball rammed into the No. 83 train, driving right through the 83’s caboose, its next two cars, and half of another before flying off the track. Marking the precise record of the man’s death, Jones’s watch stopped at 3:52 a.m. on April 30, 1900.

His sacrifice was not in vain. Jones’s actions would soon be credited with saving the lives of the passengers seated in the cars located further up the train. Many called him a hero. The passengers who owed their lives to him certainly did. His actions were immortalized in a 1909 folk song by Eddie Newton and T. Lawrence Seibert, titled “The Ballad of Casey Jones.” There is a Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum in his hometown of Jackson, Tennessee.

Exactly how Robert Hunter, lyricist of the Grateful Dead and writer of their 1970 Workingman’s Dead tune “Casey Jones,” turned the legend of the train engineer into a tale about a cocaine-crazed train conductor are unclear. The real Casey Jones was a well-known teetotaler. He never even drank beer, much less took hard drugs.

As part of his artistic perspective, Robert Hunter has often proven reluctant to share insight into the intended meaning of his songs. He is a dedicated craftsman and student of Americana, so there is little doubt that he was familiar with “The Ballad of Casey Jones” and the true story of what happened that night in Vaughn, Mississippi.

While the exact thought process that turned the story of a hero into a tale about drug use is unknown, Hunter has made at least one statement about the popular misinterpretation that the song encourages the use of cocaine. “I said the bad word – cocaine – and put it in a somewhat romanticized context, and people look at that as being an advertisement for cocaine rather than what a close inspection of the words will tell you.”* Despite its catchy tune and sing-along feel, the song does not laud cocaine, but instead warns against it.

Whatever the song’s ultimate meaning might be, it has become one of the Dead’s most lasting numbers. The band performed it as a regular part of their live playlist from June 1969 to October 1974. In all, they performed “Casey Jones” live more than 300 times. The song still receives airplay today.

Workingman’s Dead has also proven to be one of the Dead’s most enduring studio albums. Rolling Stone readers voted it the best album of 1970. The magazine named it number 262 of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It reached number 27 on the pop charts and achieved platinum status in 1986.

The song’s contribution to the legend of an American folk hero is somewhat confusing. On one hand, it has kept the man’s name in the consciousness of pop music listeners for over a hundred years after his death. On the other hand, it has forever associated the name of Casey Jones with the excessive and irresponsible use of hard drugs. Perhaps this ambiguity has lessened with the advent of the internet, when curious fans can easily access information detailing the man’s true story.

According to A.J. “Fatty” Thomas, a train engineer who rode with Jones on more than one occasion, Jones was quite capable of making his own music. “Casey could just about play a tune on the (train) whistle. He could make the cold chills run up your back with it, and grin all the time. Everyone along the line knew Casey Jones’s whistle.” The echo of Casey Jones’s whistle may have long ago faded away, but his name, whether heroically or dubiously associated, has lived on far beyond his passing.
~ Jeff Suwak

Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com.


*from The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics

Get more on the legend of Casey Jones at Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum Casey Jones Songfacts
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