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Casey Jones, Wallis Sanders, Et. Al.

            One of the reasons why English spelling is so odd is due to the arrival of the first printing press in Englandin 1476.  At that time spoken English was in transition from the Middle English pronunciations of Chaucer’s time toward the more modern sound of Shakespeare and from there on to today.  When William Caxton brought the first press to England and began printing, he, and others, spelled words as they were spoken.  At the time, the word “knight” was pronounced something like “kuh-nic-t,” so the printed form reflected the pronunciation.  Much more is involved in the story of spelling, but the fact that spelling was established in print even as major changes were occurring in pronunciation helped make English spelling the challenge that it is today.  If we asked, “Who was the last person to pronounce “knight” “kuh-nic-t” or the first to pronounce it “nite,” we would be asking a question impossible to answer.  Those questions do have answers, but those answers exist only theoretically, in something akin to the metaphoric “cloud” of modern technology; some things can be downloaded, some cannot.

            The questions of  musicologists and music researchers are like questions about pronunciation.  Who wrote John Henry or Stack-O-Lee? What was the first version of In the Pines or Frankie and Johnny?  These questions must have answers, but those answers are extremely elusive, cloud-like. Casey Jones is a song similar to the others. Although, since the wreck that the song is about occurred on May 1, 1900 and was covered by newspapers, the origin of the song should be discoverable.

            If you decide to pursue the origins of Casey Jones you will quickly learn that the song was originally written by Wallis (Wallace, Wash) Sanders (Saunders).1 Sanders you will learn was an African-American engine wiper (or maybe something else) at the Canton, Mississippi roundhouse on the Illinois Central Line from Chicago to New Orleans. Sanders was, supposedly, a friend of Casey Jones and made up the song shortly after the accident using an old tune called Jimmie Jones about an earlier and different wreck.  No matter what sources you read, you will find the listed information -- because that is almost everything that anyone has ever heard about Wallis Sanders. 2

            In 1910, about a year after T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton published and copyrighted their song, Casey Jones, George Garnett of Birmingham, Alabama wrote to Railroad Man’s Magazine, “the song bearing his [Casey Jones’] name was written and sung by an old roundhouse darkey by the name of Wallace Sanders.”3  That Sanders was an engine wiper (one who cleaned engines after they were brought to the roundhouse) can be inferred from Garnett’s letter because that would have been the typical job for an African-American in a roundhouse, especially in the Deep South.  This statement about Sanders is the source of much of the information about the man.

            Most of the other information that exists about Sanders comes from a brief account in America’s Ballads and Folk Songs by John and Alan Lomax.  John Lomax states that “In 1910 O. L. Miller, mayor of Canton, Mississippi, wrote to the senior editor of this collection [John Lomax] as follows: ‘Wallis Sanders is the composer of the popular song Casey Jones.  Casey was running between Memphis and Canton when he was killed fourteen miles north of Canton.  He was a great favorite with the roundhouse men as well as all who came in contact with him.  The darkey, Wallis Sanders, made the song in his own way … [he] will get to singing this song now and add words that suit Casey’s railroad life just as well as the original does.  I read your letter to Wallis and he said, ‘Boss, is there anything in it?’ I told him no money but lots of fame, and he said, ‘What dat, Boss?’ … I was forty years foreman of the railroad shops here.”4 This account adds the idea that Casey Jones may have been friends with or at least friendly to Wallis Sanders. 

            Oddly, the Lomaxes did not visit Canton right away. In fact, as they say, “Twenty-three years later we went to Canton to find Wallis Sanders” (Lomax, p. 37 ).  I guess they thought that time stood still in Mississippi.  At any rate, in 1933 Sanders was dead and Mayor Miller was dead.  Fortunately, maybe too fortunately, Mayor Miller’s daughter took the father and son to see Cornelius Steen, “Wallis Sander’s close friend” (Lomax. P. 37).

            Steen added the last bit of the information on Wallis Sanders.  The Lomaxes said Steen told them that “While visiting in Kansas City many years ago, he had heard the song Jimmie Jones” … sung by a strolling street guitarist.  He brought the tune and some of the verses back with him to Canton and to the roundhouse where he worked. ‘Wash’ Sanders, who also worked as a coal heaver, heard the song, liked it, and made it his own by adding verses that described the wreck in which poor old Jimmie Jones was killed.  When sufficiently in his cups, he could sing on for a long time and never repeat a stanza.  Some time after, Casey Jones, who had a regular run as an engineer between Memphis and Canton, and whom Steen said he knew well and saw often, was killed in the now famous wreck.”  Sanders then changed the words ‘Jimmie Jones’ to ‘Casey Jones.’   Here is added the information on the earlier tune Jimmie Jones and the note that someone, either Wallis Sanders, or more likely Cornelius Steen, knew Casey Jones well and liked him.

            That’s about it for Wallis Sanders.  Other letter writers may have made one of these statements about Sanders earlier than the Lomaxes, but most people who credit Sanders with the song are quoting, directly or indirectly, the information in Garnett’s letter or in the Lomaxes’ book.

            One point of interest here is that all three people in Canton, Mississippi, Sanders, Miller and Steen, are attempting to serve their own interests in their interviews with the Lomaxes.  Sanders wondered if he could get money from them. Miller is quietly boosting Canton while maneuvering himself into the events.  And Steen thrusts himself into the middle of the story – he brought the tune to Sanders, he and Casey were buddies.  This strategy worked for Miller and Steen since they remain part of the story of Casey Jones. Norm Cohen also noted the problematic nature of Steen’s story by saying, “Steen told the Lomaxes that he taught Saunders the progenitor of the Casey Jones ballad, Lady Fortune is seldom so munificent to folklorists”(Cohen, p. 146). The self-serving interplay between interviewer and subject is an area worthy of deeper study.

            When looked at dispassionately, there is scant evidence indicating that Wallis Sanders wrote the original Casey Jones.  Two people, Miller and Steen, claim firsthand acquaintance with Sanders, so it seems likely that he did exist.  Also, both Miller and Steen say that Sanders wrote Casey Jones.  Miller simply makes the assertion, while indicating that Sanders was uneducated (“I read your letter to Wallis.”)  Steen in contrast tells a story, but to some extent, the story raises questions. First, Steen directly says that the tune that Sanders used already existed – Jimmie Jones.  Second, Steen notes that Sanders frequently sang the song in the roundhouse and added verses about Jimmie Jones being in a train wreck.   Finally, Steen indicates that Sanders did not so much compose a song about Casey Jones as he simply changed the name in the song that already existed.  Steen certainly makes it sound as if the song that became Casey Jones was sung by Sanders well before the wreck of Engine 382 and that Sanders, at first, did little more than transpose a new name into an old song. As Casey Jones became popular, it is quite possible that many railroad men remembered Sanders singing the tune of Jimmie Jones and gave him credit as the original author of Casey Jones.

            In fact, trying to discover the one true author of Casey Jones is something of a fool’s errand. The tune existed before the wreck. Many verses that show up in the song have nothing to do with the wreck at Vaughan.  After Casey Jones’ wreck, many railroad men probably began to piece together a song about the wreck, some idly using an old song, some, more seriously, trying to be original.  Eventually, various verses and tunes told the story of the wreck and the death of Casey. Nine years passed before Seibert and Newton wrote words and music down and had their version copyrighted.  At that point a hit emerged, and the song went, in modern terms, viral.  Wallis Sanders deserves his mention, but for the true source of the most popular version of the song, look to Seibert and Newton.

            Unfortunately, T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton are about as elusive as Wallis Sanders.  They were Vaudevillians, they wrote and performed songs and their photographs are on the original sheet music for Casey Jones.  Not much other information is readily available.

            There was a story that fellow Vaudvillians, the Leighton Brothers had gotten a version of Casey Jones from another brother who was a railroad man.  They incorporated the song into their act and Seibert and Newton took the song from the Leightons, did some writing and rearranging and secured copyright.  Norm Cohen tracked this story down and found that the Leightons actually picked up Casey Jones from Seibert and Newton.  So much for a good story.

            Of some interest is the fact that the words to a version of Casey Jones were published in Railroad Man Magazine in 1908, the year before Seibert and Newton published their sheet music.  The 1908 version has similar verses to some in the Seibert and Newton version, but does not have Seibert and Newton’s last verse that so pained Mrs. Casey Jones.  Also, the 1908 version has three more verses than Seibert and Newton’s five.  It is certainly possible that Seibert and Newton were singing Casey Jones as part of their act in 1908 and became aware that similar lyrics had been published.  Maybe the 1908 version spurred them to set words and music to paper and secure a copyright.  Of course, maybe there is no connection. 

            The Seibert-Newton Casey Jones was recorded almost immediately after it was published.  Billy Murray had a version on record in 1912 and many others including Vernon Dalhart and The Georgia Skillet-Lickers had Casey Jones out by the mid-1920’s.  The song takes the older form of  a “Come all ye” ballad and is distinguished by having a plot.  It is essentially a narrative and falls into the tradition, albeit much changed, of English balladry.  Musicologists provide a much more accurate description of this type of song than I can.  My point is that the Seibert-Newton version is in the tradition of the white Appalachian ballad and as such was quickly picked up by what today would be called country singers.  Plenty of black singers knew the song and sang it, but the recordings of this version tend to be white and, as time passed, rural. Though written down by musically sophisticated Vaudevillians, this version of Casey Jones quickly became a folk song in the ballad tradition. 

 

 

            Another tradition, however, existed.  Even if Wallis Sanders did makeup a song about Casey Jones, it may not have been the one that Seibert and Newton eventually published.  Another, more blues-like version of the song exists.  Just as Seibert and Newton deserve much, if not most, of the credit for the narrative ballad version of Casey Jones, Furry Lewis deserves similar credit for the blues ballad version – although we should not overlook the talking blues version by Mississippi John Hurt. To search for the Ur-Casey Jones will always be fun, but fruitless fun.  To see and hear what Furry Lewis did is instructive.

            Lewis was born in 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi so that he was seven years old when Casey Jones’ train wreck near Vaughan occurred. Around that time, Lewis’s family moved to Memphis, and Lewis grew up in the city that was a crossroads for music of all kinds.  By the time he was fifteen, Lewis had begun playing professionally as both a solo act and with various bands. About the time that Lewis’s music career began, Seibert and Newton published their arrangement of Casey Jones which not only became a hit but also produced a sudden outpouring of information about the song.  Almost all the claims for other songs as the source for Casey Jonesand all the information about various writers came out in just a few years after Lawrence and Newton’s sheet music in 1909.  It seems almost certain that Furry Lewis, playing music in Memphis at this time, heard multiple versions of Casey Jones and probably could sing multiple versions.  Eighteen years later, in 1927, he recorded a version of Kassie Jones in the studio; it was not released. The next year, he recorded a two-sided record, Kassie Jones 1 and Kassie Jones 2, that was released and sold fairly well.  That record, for various reasons, has become the definitve version of what Norm Cohen calls the blues ballad version of the songs about Casey Jones.

            Lewis’ Kassie Jones has a different melody from the Seibert-Newton version and different verses, though a few correspond.  (Norm Cohen offers a full discussion of the differences between the two versions and some of the likely sources for each.) But, disregarding questions of sources and original versions, there are a number of significant aspects of Furry Lewis’s song. First, as Cohen notes, it fits more into the blues idiom than does the more narrative-structured Seibert-Newton version.  Second, Lewis’ version has floating verses.  Lewis recorded the song several times and no two recordings are exactly alike.  Kassie Jones has an unknown number of verses which Lewis could choose from according to the situation, his own preferences, and whatever came to mind as he sang.  In contrast, Casey Jones by Seibert and Newton has five verses, and many singers sing those five and no more.  Third, while Kassie Jones does weave the story of Casey Jones’ wreck into the song, most verses have either nothing, or precious little, to do with the wreck.  Often verses are more a commentary on Jones or his family than part of the narrative of what happened at Vaughan.  Fourth and finally, Kassie Jones is essentially an improvisational song.  Like a jazz composition, Kassie Jones is created anew each time it is sung.  Because he had sung the song many times, Furry Lewis had many different verses to draw on and many options for ordering those verses. Each time he sang Kassie Jones,Furry Lewis sang a new but immediately recognizable song.  And, Furry Lewis was the composer and creator.  He obviously drew from earlier songs and singers, including Seibert and Newton, but Kassie Jones is his.  Other singers may copy him, but the song is his, just as Casey Jones is Seibert and Newton’s and Talking Casey Blues is Mississippi John Hurt’s.

            Another subject that emerges here is the matter of dates.  Almost all of the information on Casey Jones and its variations appeared in the few years after Seibert and Newton wrote their version, 1909.  George Garnett’s letter about Wallis Sanders was written in 1910.  Mayor Miller contacted the Lomaxes in 1910.  Many of those who claimed the song was about this or that other engineer, or Jay Gould or something else, all wrote their letters or articles in the years close to 1909.  Seibert and Newton set off a mini-bombshell in Casey Jones studies.  I think the obvious conclusion is that while the song existed in many forms before 1909, the publication of The Ballad of Casey Jones by Seibert and Newton made the song famous and produced the interest in the song and its sources that continues into the present. Too often, musicologists have lost sight of the importance of Seibert and Newton as they chase the elusive ghost train of the “real author.”

            However, the story of Casey Jones cannot end in 1909.  There is still Furry Lewis and  Kassie Jones in 1928.  Many of those who write about Casey Jones insinuate plainly or tacitly that the Furry Lewis version is the more authentic version of the song, even though it does not achieve any significance until Lewis’ recording in 1928, and not much then. Time has had a way of making two white Vaudevillians seem less “real” than an African-American street sweeper and blues singer.  But the tunes, Seibert and Newton’s and Lewis’, both pre-date the wreck of Engine 382. Both tunes were adapted by singers in different times and places about different people and events.  Seibert and Newton wrote a song specifically about Casey Jones.  Furry Lewis did something a little different.

            First, why would anyone think that in 1928, with Seibert and Newton’s Casey Jones having achieved immense popularity, that Furry Lewis, an entertainer seeking the same sort of success that the earlier Vaudevillians had achieved, would search through what were already the dim mists of his parents’, or even grandparents,’ memories to sing a song about Kassie Jones? More likely, he wanted to sing about the still popular engineer but could not because of copyright problems.  Why sing a song that might involve royalties when he knew a sort of song about the same subject.  This song he knew and partly made up was not as carefully plotted as the Seibert and Newton song, but many verses dealt with, or could be made to deal with, Casey Jones. Besides the song had endless verses about anything and everything.  He could get two full sides about the brave engineer – well two full sides with some verses about the brave etc.

            So, out comes the bouncy Kassie Jones.  It proves to be not nearly as popular as Casey Jones, but it has its fans.  In the 1960’s Furry Lewis is still around, and he continues to sing Kassie Jones, different every time, but now much more popular with his young, white audiences. A subtle transmigration occurs and in time, Kassie Jones gets the reputation as the original version and the mystic figure of Wallis Sanders seems to smile down on it. Kassie Jones is a good song, and Furry Lewis is a hell of a performer.

            Maybe Kassie Jones was closer to the original version – or maybe not.  I think good arguments can be made for both melodies with probably the Seibert and Newton song being the one most fully associated with the train wreck.  The two tunes probably do come from two different strands of American music, but both black and white singers sang both songs and guessing who sang what first is just that – guessing.  Seibert and Newton deserve credit; Furry Lewis deserves credit. And a ghostly crew of black and white railroad men, bums, entertainers and just folks, represented by Wallis Sanders, deserves credit.

            Casey Jones and Kassie Jones and all their variations and all their progenitors exist in the Cloud.  The Cloud, like Borges’ Library of Babel, has all information about everything, but there is no way to get to the precise information a person seeks.  Wallis Sanders floats by but remains enigmatic. Seibert and Newton wrote Casey Jones.  Furry Lewis recorded (wrote) Kassie Jones.  Those two versions became the song, and so it has remained.

 

1 I have decided to spell Sanders name the way that the Mayor of Canton, Mississippi did in his letter to John and Alan Lomax.  He most likely had local knowledge, and “Wallis Sanders” seems more like a rural Mississippi name than Wallace Saunders. I suppose the nickname “Wash” to be authentic.

2 Cohen, Norm. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. p. 137.           

3qtd. by Cohen, p. 141.

 4 Lomax, John and Alana Lomax. America’s Ballads and Folk Songs. p. 36. Online.

 


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