‘The Wreck of the Old 97’ – Learn to Play This Classic Railway Ballad

Guitarist Jody Stecher plays this country standard in F major, a key he finds has a sonic atmosphere all its own.

On September 27, 1903, an engineer on the Southern Railway, under pressure from management to stay on schedule, took his train at excessive speed, causing it to careen off a bridge near Danville, Virginia. This disaster—which killed 11 people and badly injured seven others—was the inspiration for a poem by David Graves George, a local resident who had visited the wreck site to offer assistance. After the poem was set to music, it became a country standard, interpreted by everyone from Johnny Cash to Hank Snow.

Guitarist Jody Stecher plays “The Wreck of the Old 97” in F major, a key he finds has a sonic atmosphere all its own. He keeps things easy on his fretting hand by mixing up positions when it comes to the I chord (F)—playing it sometimes just on the top four strings, other times with his thumb on string 6, and occasionally as a full barre chord at the first fret. For the IV chord (Bb), instead of a barre chord he plays notes on the low strings.

During the verses, Stecher uses a sort of boom-chuck approach, but with a little twist: instead of strumming chords on beats 2 and 4, he often goes just for single notes. This makes for a clean and uncluttered sound; Stecher maintains a driving sense of accompaniment without overpowering his vocals. This less-is-more concept serves well whether accompanying a singer or playing in an instrumental ensemble.


Stecher plays contrasting guitar solos—the first/third in a lower register (bars 19–34) and the second in a higher one (bars 51–67). But the solos are based on the same idea: playing notes around chord shapes. Even though Stecher is not directly stating chords, the harmonic implications are clearly heard. To learn more about this approach—a good way to get into soloing in many styles—check out Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers’ Weekly Workout lessons in the June 2017 and March 2018 issues of AG.

This arrangement originally appeared in Traditional Songs with Jody Stecher: Complete Edition, available at store.acousticguitar.com.


This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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