Who was Casey Jones? Hint: Not just a Joe Hill song

Jonathan Luther “John””Casey” Jones (1863-1900)from Jackson, Tenn., was an American railroader who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad (IC). As a boy, he lived near Cayce, Ky., where he acquired the nickname he chose to spell as “Casey.”On April 30, 1900, he was killed when his passenger train, the Cannonball Express, collided with a stalled freight train at Vaughan, Miss., on a foggy, rainy night.

His dramatic death while trying to stop his train and save lives made him a hero. He was immortalized in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African-American engine wiper for the IC.Jones’s fame owes everything to that song, “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” recorded by such artists as Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger, Furry Lewis, The Grateful Dead, and Johnny Cash, among others.*

“Casey Jonesthe Union Scab”was written by Joe Hill, organizer and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, commonly known as the Wobblies), in 1911 in San Pedro, Calif., shortly after he heard about a nationwide walkout of railway employees.Many of the railway workers were organized into the railway brotherhoods, which were craft unions, as distinct from the IWW’s industrial unions. Joe Hill’s song is a parody of Wallace Saunders’ballad and is sung to its tune.

Hill was famous for appropriating tunes, often Salvation Army hymn tunes, and he no doubt reached for one of the best known railroad songs for his parody. The pro-union protest spoof of the original ballad portrays a negative version of Casey Jones 11 years after his death; its reference to sabotage on the part of the workers, that leads to Casey’s death, sits uncomfortably today. Perhaps unfairly, Casey Jones in Hill’s version is depicted as a selfish person, refusing to join the strike movement of the Southern Pacific (S.P.) Railway Company. Yet it was published in the Little Red Songbook in 1912 and became a cherished labor chestnut, also often recorded.

Casey Jones the Union Scab by Joe Hill

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 drivers on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings, they were all out of plumb.

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 someone put a bunch of railroad ties across the track,
And Casey hit the river with an awful crack.

Casey Jones hit the river bottom;
Casey Jones broke his blooming spine,
Casey Jones was an Angeleno,
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 yet a job a-scabbing any time you like.”

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 Angel’s Union No. 23, they sure were there,
And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stair.

Casey Jones went to Hell a-flying.
“Casey Jones,” the Devil said, “Oh fine;
Casey Jones, get busy shoveling sulphur;
That’s what you get for scabbing on the S. P. line.”

Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.

*View a fun YouTube version of the original song here. At approx. 1:45 youll hear a reference to a certain former Chair of the CPUSA! 😉

Photo: Wikimedia (CC)


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Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.