By Ashley Steenson
Over the past decade, the small town of Water Valley, Mississippi, has been recommended by publications like Garden & Gun, Southern Living and The New York Times. A half hour’s drive from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Water Valley is home to well-loved small businesses like B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery and Violet Valley Books. The town is full of carefully preserved historic houses and original art, like sculptures by John Steele Davis and hand-painted signs by Bill Warren.
A century ago, Water Valley was centered around the Illinois Central Railroad. With tracks from New Orleans to Chicago, the Illinois Central developed its own lore in American music through songs like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Lemon’s Cannonball Blues” (1928) and Tampa Red’s “I.C. Moan Blues” (1930). As relics of America’s industrial past, figures like Illinois Central engineer Casey Jones have taken on a legendary significance in popular culture. In 1957, The New York Times concluded that the song “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was “not only sort of a requiem for a brave engineer but for a vanished period in our history.”
In 2012, Water Valley unveiled a Mississippi Blues Trail marker dedicated to John Luther “Casey” Jones. Inside, The Casey Jones Railroad Museum houses collections dedicated to preserving Jones’ legacy and railroad history in North Mississippi. Though he saw Jackson, Tennessee, as his hometown, Jones was a union member in Water Valley, and his family lived there for a short period. Railroad historian Bruce Gurner explains, “If we did not already know that Casey was not the rounder the song would have you believe, we know it now.” In a 1928 interview, Casey’s wife Janie claimed, “Always he was in good humor and his Irish heart was as big as his body.” As for the name Casey, it came from near where he was born in Cayce, Kentucky, in 1863.
In 1900, the Illinois Central assigned Casey Jones to a run from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi, on the “Cannonball” train. A few hours before his fatal accident, Jones and fireman Simeon T. “Sim” Webb left Memphis for Canton about 11 p.m. on April 29. Famously, the “Cannonball” was going too fast to stop for train cars blocking the tracks near Vaughan, Mississippi. All passengers survived but Jones. The New York Times recalled decades later that workers found Jones “scalded by steam and with a bolt from the wreckage in his neck.” Webb lived a long life and died in a Memphis hospital at 83.
To the question of why Jones refused to jump after he pulled the brake, Gurner suggested, “You would just have to understand how Casey loved his job, his engine and the railroad to understand why he did not jump.” If he could help, “he wanted to be there to do it.” For Jones’ funeral in Jackson, Tennessee, 15 workers from Water Valley made the trip of over a hundred miles. In 1947, on hearing Jones had no gravestone, writers Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg commissioned a monument and held an unveiling in Jackson.
There are countless songs about the legend of Casey Jones in the history of American music. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was written by Jones’ friend Wallace Saunders and published in 1908. T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton produced the first version on sheet music in 1909. Mississippi John Hurt recorded an unreleased song about Casey Jones in the 1920s and recorded newer versions in the 1960s. During the folk revival of the same decade, Johnny Cash released a tribute to Casey Jones on Blood, Sweat, and Tears (1963).
The Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones” is easily the most famous song that mentions the legendary railroad engineer. Jerry Garcia and longtime Dead songwriter Robert Hunter wrote “Casey Jones” for Workingman’s Dead in 1970. In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview with editor Jann Wenner and law professor Robert Reich, Garcia told its origin story. From the beginning, the band set out to make Workingman’s Dead different from previous albums. “Let’s try to make it cheap this time,” he said.
After the Dead “got busted in New Orleans,” Garcia said the album was the only positive thing to come out of a time of “sheer weirdness.” In keeping with the portrayal of Casey Jones as an outlaw in the song, there is no shortage of theories among fans as to why the Dead mostly stopped playing it in the 1980s. Predictably, the lyric claiming Jones was “high on cocaine” plays into the rumors. From the investigation of the classic “Louie Louie” through the current controversy surrounding Georgia rappers Young Thug and Gunna, the F.B.I. has targeted many artists including the Grateful Dead. (Records of Garcia’s arrests and the F.B.I.’s file on the Dead are widely available).
Workingman’s Dead, along with albums like Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes (1975), encapsulates a broader cultural moment in American history. Like John Steinbeck and other writers in the 1930s, American bands revived interest in the culture of working people in the 1960s and 1970s. When Wenner asked how the Dead’s music changed over time, Garcia explained, “We were into a much more relaxed thing about that time. And we were also out of our pretentious thing.” The album was less “experimental” and more “good old band.” Like “Casey Jones,” the song “Easy Wind” references classic images from Americana like prowling for prostitutes working on “the great highway.” Robert Hunter also seemed to reference Louisiana when wrote that there was an “easy wind” across “the bayou today.”
Music critic Greil Marcus’ appraisal of The Basement Tapes as “a discovery of memory and roots” is equally applicable to “Casey Jones” and Workingman’s Dead. In Marcus’ words, albums like The Basement Tapes can “summon sea chanteys; drinking songs, tall tales, and early rock and roll,” as well as the “impenetrable fatalism that drives the timeless ballads first recorded in the twenties.” With songs like “Bessie Smith” and a cover of the Texas prison song “Ain’t No More Cane on This Brazos,” The Basement Tapes resurrected “the strange adventures and poker-faced insanities” of early 20th-century music. Rick Danko of The Band also played a version of “Ain’t No More Cane” with Jerry Garcia on a train called the “Festival Express” for the Dead’s 1970 Canadian tour.
Though the last train left Water Valley, Mississippi, in 1982, the legend of Casey Jones and what Greil Marcus called the “old, weird America” is alive in part through tributes by artists like the Grateful Dead, as well as through the dedication of locals in towns like Water Valley. The Blues Trail marker and Illinois Central train cars at the Casey Jones Railroad Museum are accessible seven days a week, and the museum itself is open from 2-4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Americans continue to venerate figures like Casey Jones and John Henry for their individualism in the face of the dangers surrounding America’s industrial beginnings. Both the accurate portrayal of Casey Jones the individual and the fictional portrayal of Casey Jones the outlaw are aspects of the story. French philosopher Roland Barthes explains that a person “can pass from a closed and silent existence” to a mythic one, “open to appropriation by society.” On the fact that her husband’s train and whistle stood out from the others, Janie Jones claimed, “People living along the Illinois Central right of way between Jackson and Water Valley would turn over in their beds late at night and say: ‘There goes Casey Jones.’”
Ashley Steenson is currently a history Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama and primarily writes about politics.