Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Monday Concert: Joe Hill’s “Casey Jones”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 3, 2012

The ballad of Casey Jones has been recorded many, many times, but my favorite is this cover by the indomitable Pete Seeger, with the lyrics written by labor activist Joe Hill for the Industrial Workers of the World. Hill’s version took advantage of the popularity of the traditional version, which related the story of the real John Luther “Casey” Jones, an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad, and made it into an allegory on the fate of union scabs. The real Jones was the sole fatality in a train wreck in rural Mississippi in 1900 — one in which his actions, staying on the brakes of his locomotive to the end, were credited with saving many lives among the passengers on his train — but Hill’s lyrics move his demise to a different railroad, in very different circumstances:

The workers on the S.P. line to strike sent out a call;
But Casey Jones, the engineer, he wouldn’t strike at all;
His boiler it was leaking, and its driver’s on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings they were all out of plumb.
 
Chorus:
Casey Jones kept his junk pile running;
Casey Jones was working double time;
Casey Jones got a wooden medal,
For being good and faithful on the S.P. line.
 
The workers said to Casey: “Won’t you help us win this strike?”
But Casey said: “Let me alone, you’d better take a hike.”
Then Casey’s wheezy engine ran right off the wheezy track,
And Casey hit the river with an awful smack.
 
Chorus:
Casey Jones hit the river bottom;
Casey Jones broke his blooming spine;
Casey Jones turned into an angel,
He took a trip to heaven on the S.P. line.
 
When Casey Jones got up to heaven to the Pearly Gate,
He said: “I’m Casey Jones, the guy that pulled the S.P. freight.”
“You’re just the man,” said Peter, “our musicians went on strike:
You can get a job a-scabbing any time you like.”
 
Chorus:
Casey Jones got a job in heaven;
Casey Jones was doing mighty fine;
Casey Jones went scabbing on the angels,
Just like he did to workers on the S.P. line.
 
The angels got together and they said it wasn’t fair
For Casey Jones to go around a-scabbing everywhere.
The Angels’ Union No. 23, they sure were there,
And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stair.
 
Chorus:
Casey Jones went to Hell a-flying;
“Casey Jones,” the Devil said, “Oh fine;
Casey Jones, get busy shoveling sulfur
That’s what you get for scabbing on the S.P. line.”

Hill’s lyrics have nothing at all to do with the real Casey Jones, but Seeger’s version is so vibrant, so compelling — so unerringly cynical, funny and explicitly political — that it overrides those concerns for me, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, whoever put this video together with Seeger’s recording used images of the real Casey Jones to illustrate Hill’s song. I suggest ignoring the visuals altogether.

Seeger sings the original here:

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One Response

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  1. Pat Young said, on September 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Casey Jones the Union Scab. When I lived up in Buffalo a lot of the Union folks knew the old Wobbly songs from half a century earlier. They were sung in the most rollicking way imaginable. That was back when working folks thought they could get get a better life by sticking together.

    My teenaged son’s great thrill was meeting Pete Seeger up in the Hudson Valley. My boy is autistic and Pete was a true gentleman with him.


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