The Disaster Ballad: The Wreck of Old 97
In the same spirit of the American Murder Ballad, the Disaster Ballad served to tell a story of a great, tragic event. Long before the internet, television, or even radio, storytelling and songwriting served the public’s need for news and often times they received details of a crime or a horrible disaster through the lyrics of a song making its way through the hills. Folks in Virginia knew the particulars of the sinking of the Titanic thanks to Ernest Stoneman and Cap, Andy and Flip reported on the goings-on of events such as the McBeth Mine Explosion. Almost all blues music seems to be traced back to the great Mississippi Flood of 1927. However, in the pantheon of great disaster ballads, one song reigns supreme and that would be the story of the Southern Railroad’s southbound mail train’s trip from Washington to Atlanta, the story of Old 97.
There really is nothing new to say about this wreck that has never been said before. I mean, there really isn’t. I’ve looked at it from every angle. Johnny Cash popularized the song, but he removed race from it, despite being the quintessential outlaw and Southerner. His fireman is “big, greasy,” instead of the “black, greasy” fireman of Hank III, Boxcar Willie and Skillet Licker fame. This is probably due to the fact that Johnny Cash played in a lot of prisons and wanted to get out of them alive.
But A.C. Clapp wasn’t even African-American. He was just black and greasy because he shoveled coal and took orders from people who clearly were idiots. I mean, Joseph “Steve/Stevie” Brody isn’t fully to blame for killing over eleven people in Danville, Virginia. Anyone who believed that “the Fast Mail” could possibly catch up after leaving Monroe and “put her into Spencer on time” would surely be smoking crack, or whatever the equivalent of crackheads back in the Fall of 1903 smoked to deduce dumb shit. But someone did. and lives were tragically lost. No, someone at the top of the ladder pulled these strings and innocent people paid the price.
The Southern Railway blamed Brody. Brody’s family blamed the suits. The original composer of the ballad is a mystery because a handful of people got into court to blame each other for thievery. Every version blames the railroad because “they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia saying ‘Steve, you’re way behind time’.” And each singer takes an odd turn on the last verse to lay blame in a very curious location: the feet of a woman.
No kidding. I’ve listened to a million versions of this song, and despite hearing Big Business bitchslap one of the 99% around in order to meet a deadline, the ditty always ends with a lesson to the poor lady married to the company man. To avoid a tragedy such as that which befell the widows of the black, greasy fireman or the engineer “scalded to death by the steam,” she must “never speak harsh words to [her] true loving husband” or “he may leave you and never return.”
Now I like to imagine I approach music the same way I approach every aspect of my life — with the verve and enthusiasm of a reformed cult leader — but this shit blows my mind. The same guilt trip my mother employs to goad me into attendance at family holiday functions combined with the nefarious marketing tactics of British Petroleum or Lehmann Brothers factor into the listener’s consciousness of this turn-of-the-century disaster ballad. Listen to it as many times as you want, but you will still get the same message:
Your husband is going to get killed at work if you act like a bitch. And then where will you be? Husbandless. But still a bitch. Be nice to him and maybe he won’t die.
(Check out my own page at http://reverenderyk.blogspot.com/ if you want more…)