Laura Harbert Allen Published

Ballads About Train Wrecks Hold Lessons For Modern Life

Record Scruggs

Starting in the late nineteenth century, trains were everywhere in southern Appalachia. And so were songs about them.

“People are riding on trains, interacting with them. Witnessing crashes with them, building them,” said Scott Huffard, an associate professor of History at Lees-McCrae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina. “And we have this sort of rich history that these songs spring from.”

Huffard’s book, “Engines of Redemption: Railroads and the Reconstruction of Capitalism in the New South” was published in 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press.

“These songs emulate the train. The image of the lonesome whistle has such a powerful meaning,” Huffard said. “ It’s not just songs about trains, it’s songs sounding like trains.”

Sometimes, train sounds were created by bending the pitch on the fiddle across strings. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s version of The Wreck of the Old 97 is a great example of that technique.

Musicians also used open guitar tunings and specific fingerpicking techniques to imitate the chug of the train.

“The thumb is going from the sixth string to the fourth string. Back and forth. Boom, boom, boom, boom; boom, boom; boom, boom; boom, boom,” James “Sparky” Rucker said.

Rucker, a folklorist, storyteller, historian, and singer has performed southern Appalachian train songs for decades. He also described the bottleneck technique, developed by early Blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta and made its way to Appalachia.

“A lot of times, the old musicians would take the neck from an old bottle and break it off, slide it over either their long finger or their ring finger,” said Rucker. And then if you pluck it while that slide is on the string, it makes it sustain longer. And that gives you that feeling of the train going, he said. He demonstrated the “whaa -whaa” sound of the train whistle – on pitch – through a crackly land-line phone interview from his east Tennessee home.

Rucker uses the bottleneck technique in his arrangement of John Henry, which he said is one of his favorite songs to play.

Sparky Rucker (right) and his wife Rhonda (left) play the banjoes together on-stage while singing.

Photo by Pam Zappardino
Sparky Rucker, a folklorist, storyteller, historian and singer performing with his wife, Rhonda.

Huffard says there’s a reason so many of Appalachia’s train ballads and songs focus on wrecks and rough working conditions.

“You know, the region had the highest rate of train wrecks in the entire country by the 1890s,” he said. “I’d say for Appalachia as a whole, the railroad has sort of darker meanings.”

Trains were used to haul mail and other goods across the country. And train companies enforced strict delivery schedules. The pressure to run trains on time was huge – and accidents were bound to happen.

In September of 1923, a mail train careened off a railroad bridge near Danville, Virginia. It was going way too fast – about 90 miles per hour – to make up time. The accident was immortalized in the song, “The Wreck of the Old 97,” which was also performed by Johnny Cash.

Well, they gave him his orders in Monroe, Virginia,

Said, “Steve, you’re way behind time,

“This is not 38, this is Ol ’97,

“Put her into Spencer on time.”

The “Wreck of the Old 97” was the first American record to sell one million copies.

In fact, there are several train ballads written about wrecks in Appalachia. There’s “Engine 143” and the “Wreck of the Virginian,” for example. And there’s a ballad, “Fate of Chris Lively and His Wife” with a strong West Virginia connection. Blind Alfred Reed wrote the cautionary tale about a man who drove his horse-drawn carriage across a railroad junction in Pax, West Virginia in 1927.

Warnings and lessons were sometimes written into the chorus or the final verse of railroad songs. In Fate of Chris Lively and Wife, the lesson comes in the final verse.

Now good people, I hope you take warning,

As you journey along through this life,

Every time when you see “Railroad Crossing,”

Just remember Chris Lively and wife.

Turns out there are folks still writing railroad ballads today, and still including warnings and lessons.

Trevor McKenzie grew up near Rural Retreat, Virginia. He was fascinated by a panoramic photo of a train collision that hung in a local restaurant.

“You could see these two trains that had basically become fused together. They had telescoped is what you call it,” he said

Wreck of the Old 97 -- a black and white image of a train wrecked on the tracks, with people standing in the foreground looking at the sight. Text on the image indicates October 1920, Wreck of the Old 97, Rural Retreat, Va.

Marshall University
“The Wreck At Rural Retreat” from Marshall University’s digital scholar archive.

Two trains one headed east, the other, west, collided because both trains pulled off onto the same siding. A siding – or a sidetrack – is kind of like a two-way shoulder on the side of the road. It’s a place to get out of the way. The trick is to make sure train engineers know when to pull onto a siding.

On October 20, 1920, the number 14 westbound train entered the siding even though its engineer was not instructed to pull off the main track.

“This engineer was overconfident and took his side,” McKenzie said. “Thinking he had memorized his orders and it turned out that the other train was right there and they just collided.”

Both trains were going about 30 miles per hour, which doesn’t sound very fast.

But, as McKenzie pointed out, when several thousand tons of metal collide at any speed, it “creates quite a mess.” Three men died.

McKenzie’s song tells the story of the accident, almost like a documentary. And most railroad ballads had a lesson in them too – like the song about the husband and wife who were killed when they drove onto the tracks. In McKenzie’s song, the lesson is in the chorus:

Let it roll across the cross ties in your mind

Let it roll

Just take time and know 

your sidetrack from your line

But McKenzie said there’s a deeper meaning to it.

“Railroad ballads had sort of these moralistic undertones that would sneak in at the end. And I wanted to play to that, but not in the traditional way,” he said.

There are sidetracks in life and McKenzie told me that “it’s handy that we’ve taken that railroad term and made it into this sort of universal thing.”

“I’ve just enjoyed the creative process of writing this song,” he said.

Turns out that minding your time – and sometimes taking your time – is something we can learn from Appalachia’s train ballad tradition.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.