Sunday, June 15, 2008

Show 35 - Illinois Central Railroad and Cannonball Train



Train songs are one of the cornerstones of the cornerstones of the blues. I thought I'd look at one railroad company, the illinois Central and the train they called the cannonball. The Cannonball was never an official designation, it was just a nickname for a fast train, particularly the about one that ran from New Orleans to Chicago. Officially, the Panama Limited and later the City of New Orleans, the cannonball was the subject of many great songs, usually about a man getting away from some kind of trouble. Charlie McCoy recorded one about his woman leaving him, recorded in 1930 in Jackson, Mississippi it's That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away.


Woke up this morning, found something wrong
My loving babe had caught that train and gone
Now won't you starch my jumper, iron my overalls
I'm going to ride that train that they call the Cannonball

Mister depot agent, close your depot down
The woman I'm loving, she's fixing to blow this town
Now that mean old fireman, that cruel old engineer
Going to take my baby and leave me lonesome here

It ain't no telling what that train won't do
It'll take your baby and run right over you
Now that engineer man ought to be ashamed of himself
Take women from their husbands, babies from their mother's breast

I walked down the track when the stars refused to shine
Looked like every minute I was going to lose my mind
Now my knees was weak, my footsteps was all I heard
Looked like every minute I was stepping in another world

Mister depot agent, close your depot down
The girl I'm loving, she's fixing to blow this town
Now that mean old fireman, cruel old engineer
Going to take my baby and leave me lonesome here
You can't overstate the importance the Illinois Central played in Northern migration. Countless African-Americans rode the train away from a Southern way of life. They would also ride it back down South to visit freinds and family, escape from the cold, or get away from the different difficulties encountered in Northern cities. Tampa Red sang about it in I.C. Moan.
Nobody knows that I.C. like I do
Nobody knows that I.C. like I do
Now the reason I know, I've rode it through and through

That I.C. Special is the only train I choose
That I.C. Special is the only train I choose
That's the train I ride when I get these I.C. blues

Mr. I.C. engineer, make that whistle moan
Mr. I.C. engineer, make that whistle moan
I've got the I.C. blues and I just can't help but groan

Goodbye Chicago, hello Southern town
Goodbye Chicago, hello Southern town
I want to go back baby then to be here dogged around

I've got the I.C. Blues and that's what's on my mind
I've got the I.C. Blues and that's what's on my mind
I'm gonna pack my things and move it on down the line
Frank Hutchison was a great slide guitar player usually classified on the country side of the music, primarily because he was a white man. He sang about the cannonball train coming to take him away in Cannonball Blues.
Oh the blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling sad
Oh the blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling sad
I know that feeling, its one I've often had

Went to the bedside looked in the woman's face
Went to the bedside looked in the woman's face
I love you honey, bu I don't like your lowdown ways

I opened up the door and stepped out on the ground
I opened up the door and stepped out on the ground
Goodbye honey, I'm Alabama bound

Yonder come that train coming down the railroad track
Yonder come that train, she's coming down the railroad track
She'll take me away, but she ain't gonna bring me back

When I leave here, don't you wear no black
Oh when I leave here, honey don't you wear no black
If you do, my ghost is gonna sneak right back

That train i ride, she's called the cannonball
That train i ride, she's called the cannonball
Carries 16 coaches, she carries no blinds at all

Gonna lay my head down on some railroad line-
Gonna lay my head down on some railroad line
Let the cannonball come and pacify my mind

I looked out the window as far as I can see
I looked out the window as far as I can see
While the brass kind of plain, nearer my
god to thee
Frank Hutchison sang about committing suicide by letting the Cannonball come to take his troubles away. Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded Lemon's Cannonball Blues.

Sam Collins recorded Riverside Blues for Gennett in 1927:


I went down to the river just thirty‑one days and nights
I went down to the river just thirty‑one days and nights
I'm looking for my good gal, come back and treat me right

I ain't got me nobody carry my troubles to
I ain't got me nobody carry my troubles to
I tell you peoples I don't know what to do

Just as sure as your train, Lord backs up in your yard
Just as sure as your train, Lord backs up in your yard
I'm going to see my baby if I have to ride the rods

I went away last summer, got back in the fall
I went away last summer, got back in the fall
My mind had changed, I wouldn't have come back at all

You can press my jumper, iron my overalls
You can press my jumper, iron my overalls
I'm going to the station, meet the Cannonball

The most famous legend associated with the I.C. and its Cannonball Train is the story of Casey Jones, an I.C. engineer who died in 1900 when his train crashed into a stopped freight train in Vaughn, Mississippi. The train was officially called the New Orleans special, but the newspaper headlines read I.C. Cannon Ball Wrecked. Jones' heroic effort trying to save the lives of his passenger made him a railroad icon, but it was the songs about him that made him a legend and folk hero across the entire country. Let's hear the story from piano player Jesse James who recorded it in 1936 under the title Southern Casey Jones:
I heard the people say Casey Jones can't run
I'm going to tell you what the poor boy done
Left Cincinnati about half past nine
Got to Newport News before dinner time, fore dinner time, that's fore dinner time
Got to Newport News before dinner time

Now Casey Jones said before he died
He fixed the road so a bum could ride
And if he ride he have to ride the rod
Rest his heart in the hand of God, hand of God, in the hand of God
Had to Rest his heart in the hand of God

Now little girl says mama is that a fact
Papa got killed on the I.C. track
Yes yes honey but hold your breath
Get that money from your daddy's death, from your daddy's death, from your
daddy's death
You get money from your daddy's death from your daddy's death,
from your daddy's death
You get money from your daddy's death

When the news reached town Casey Jones was dead
Women went home and had it out in red
Slipping and sliding all across the streets
With their loose mother hubbards in their stocking feet, stocking feet, stocking feet
loose mother hubbards in their stocking feet

Now Casey Jones went from place to place
Another train hit his train right in the face
People got off but Casey Jones stayed on
Natural born eastman but he's dead and gone, dead and gone, he's dead and gone
He's a natural born eastman but he's dead and gone

Here come the biggest boy coming right from school
Hollering and crying like a doggone fool
Look here mama is our papa dead?

Womens going home and had it out in red
Low cut shoes and their evening gowns
Following papa to the burying ground, to this burying ground, to this
burying ground
Following papa down to this burying ground,

Now tell the truth mama he says is that a fact
Papa got killed on the I.C. track
Quit crying boy don't do that
You got another daddy on the same damn track, on the same track, on the same track
Say you got another daddy on the same track.
Though Jesse James sang that the train left Cincinnati for Newport News, the historical Casey Jones died on the southern leg of the Illinois Central route from Chicago to New Orleans. You can't underestimate the importance that railroad played in the lives of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee looking to go North on the train they called the cannonball. Whether using the term cannonball to refer to that specific train or just another fast train that was leaving town, the cannonball occupied an important place in the blues.

Songs:
That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away - Charlie McCoy
I.C. Moan - Tampa Red
Cannonball Blues - Frank Hutchison
Lemon's Cannonball Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
Riverside Blues - Sam Collins
Southern Casey Jones - Jesse James

The Mississippi Roots of John Lee Hooker

If you cannot see the audio controls, your browser does not support the audio element We’ll take a look at the Mississippi John Lee H...