Not to be confused with the popular song by the Grateful Dead, “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” also known as “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer” or just “Casey Jones,” is one of the great traditional American folk songs. Telling the story of Jones’ death at the controls of the train he was driving, the song has built him into a mythical figure like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. But Casey Jones was a real person, a highly respected train engineer with a reputation for always running on time.
The tragic accident memorialized in “Casey Jones” took place on the dark, foggy night of April 30, 1900, on the wet tracks outside of Vaughan, Mississippi. Rounding a long curve into that community at 75 miles per hour, fireman Sim Webb spotted the lights of a caboose stopped on the track ahead. Jones reversed his train’s engine and slammed on its air brakes, managing to cut his speed to 45 mph, but there wasn’t enough track to stop. A few hundred feet before impact, the engineer told Webb, to jump. Jones managed to avert a potentially disastrous crash, saving the lives of the passengers but sacrificing his own.
Soon after the accident, an engine wiper named Wallace Saunders created a song about Jones and his demise, which he sang around the railroad yards to the tune of “Jimmie Jones,” a popular song of the time. The song passed from person to person in the yards, and it evolved as it grew in popularity up and down the Illinois Central Line.
In 1909, a pair of vaudeville performers, T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton, published it with the title “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer.” Since then there have been dozens of versions of the song—by Johnny Cash, Elizabeth Cotten, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, and others—with any number of alterations to the lyrics and form. The basic song is pretty simple, using just four chords, but many versions employ devices to keep its repetitive form moving, some with increasing tempos, and others changing keys.
My arrangement of “Casey Jones” starts out in the key of G major, with a modulation up to A, allowing me to keep everything in the friendly realm of simple open cowboy chording. It’s best played at a moderate pace, for ease of singing—this is a rather wordy song! Of course, as always with this series, my expectation is that you will view this version as a starting point and do what feels interesting for you. If you’re comfortable with barre chords, you could modulate every verse; if you’re a fan of tongue twisters, you could gradually crank that tempo up like a runaway train down a mountainside. Try the song as a recitation. Make up your own lyrics. The point is to have fun with it.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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