Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: Casey Jones

Grateful Dead: Casey Jones
Pete Seeger: Casey Jones
[purchase Grateful Dead version]
[purchase Pete Seeger version]

Earlier this week J.David posted about the railroad, and here is yet another perspective on what was once a great American institution.

I’ve been reading a lot of “Westerns” recently on my Palm Tungsten. Yes, I reject the iPad/Kindle because of the in-built DRM and prefer to  download my DRM-free books from Whatever. My latest read has been “The Taming of Red Butte Western” by Francis Lynde, but I am now on yet another of his works. IMDB says that Lynde was also the writer behind the film “Across the Burning Trestle” (which I know little about, but the title clearly fits the subject).

The Francis Lynde books I mention revolve around characters involved with the train companies in the US ca 1900. This is the material of legends such as Casey Jones.

Legends, Myths, Folklore: the lines that separate them are somewhat blurred: all are stories about things that may or may not have been. The popularity of the TV show “Myth Busters” certainly doesn’t help to clarify the distinction: the show seems to get us thinking that a myth is likely incorrect.

While there truly appears to have been a railroad engineer named Casey Jones, the details we are left with are a mix of Folklore, Myth and Legend. This Wikipedia link provides the basics, but it is the music that should concern us most here. Briefly: Casey Jones was the engineer of a fateful train-wreck in which he died while saving the lives of his passengers.

Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger and The Grateful Dead are our main musical references for this song. The first two follow the traditional path: that of the folk song. The Grateful Dead veer away from the classical folk version to create their own song which has begat its own tradition (linking Jones’ penchant for driving fast with the “speed” of the late 60s and 70s). Pete Seeger’s version has the facts all mixed up, but it sticks to the popular version. He’s got Jones way out West in Reno whereas he worked the tracks back East and died in Tennessee.




blog comments powered by Disqus