An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
"Southern Casey Jones" - Jesse James
Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Eight: "Southern Casey Jones" performed by Jesse James. Recorded in Chicago on June 3, 1936.
The Jesse James who recorded "Southern Casey Jones" is a complete mystery. No biographical information is provided in the notes to the Revenant set and I haven't been able to turn anything up through my research. All that seems to be known of him is that he was active in the '20s and '30s and that he recorded this song. Whether Jesse James was his real name or a pseudonym is unknown. If anyone has any information, please leave a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Southern Casey Jones" is a variation of "Casey Jones," a family of songs concerning the death of John Luther "Casey" Jones. For biographical information on the real Casey Jones and more information on the "Casey Jones" family of songs, see the entry for Furry Lewis's recording of "Kassie Jones."
I heard the people say Casey Jones can't run. I'm going to tell you what the poor boy done. Left Cincinnati about half past nine, Got to Newport News 'fore dinner time, 'fore dinner time, that's 'fore dinner time. Got to Newport News 'fore dinner time.
Now Casey Jones said before he died, He fixed the road so a bum could ride. And if he ride he had to ride the rod, Rest his heart in the hand of God, hand of God, in the hand of God, Had to Rest his heart in the hand of God.
Now little girl says, "Mama is that a fact, Papa got killed on the I.C. track?" "Yes, yes honey but hold your breath, Get that money from your daddy's death, from your daddy's death, from your daddy's death. You get money from your daddy's death, from your daddy's death. Aw, your daddy's death, You get money from your daddy's death."
When the news reached town Casey Jones was dead, Women went home and had it out in red. Slipping and sliding all across the streets, With their loose mother hubbard and their stocking feet, stocking feet, stocking feet. Loose mother hubbards and their stocking feet.
Now Casey Jones went from place to place, Another train hit his train right in the face. People got off but Casey Jones stayed on, Natural born eastman but he's dead and gone, dead and gone, he's dead and gone. He's a natural born eastman but he's dead and gone.
Here come the biggest boy coming right from school. Hollering and crying like a doggone fool. "Look here mama is our papa dead? Womens going home and had it out in red. Low cut shoes and their evening gowns, Following papa to the burying ground, to the burying ground, to the burying ground. Following papa down to the burying ground."
"Now tell the truth mama he says is that a fact Papa got killed on the I.C. track?" "Quit crying boy, don't do that. You got another daddy on the same damn track, on the same track, on the same track Say you got another daddy on the same track."
"Southern Casey Jones" is a marked contrast with Furry Lewis's "Kassie Jones," heard on the first volume of the Anthology, both lyrically and in terms of performance. Only two verses (the first and the third) in James's recording parallel those in Lewis's version. The songs also differ in terms of mood and style. Lewis's version is meditative, while James's recording is rollicking and uptempo. Lewis sings his version in a quiet, conversational tone, while James sings in a rough, declamatory style.
The "I.C. track" that Jones is killed on in this song is the Illinois Central, the line the real Luther Jones worked on.
Like Furry Lewis's version, James's version of "Casey Jones" does not actually depict Jones's death or is act of heroism. Instead, his death is referred to in the past tense, as having already happened.
James refers to the women as wearing "loose mother hubbards." A "Mother Hubbard" dress was a long, loose fitting dress originally introduced by missionaries in the South Pacific as a way of promoting modesty among the "naked savages" they were trying to convert. In Hawaii, these dresses were called "holokū" by the natives.
While James's recording is not the first on the Anthology to include the piano in the instrumental line-up, it is the first to feature the piano as a solo instrument. As one can well imagine, the piano was not generally an instrument associated with folk music. It was more expensive than a guitar or banjo and lacked the portability of these instruments.
The piano is technically a string instrument, played by means of a keyboard. When a key is depressed, a felt covered hammer strikes steel strings. The hammers rebound, allowing the strings to continue vibrating at their resonant frequency. These vibrations are transmitted through a bridge to a sounding board that couples the acoustic energy to the air so that it can be heard as sound. Dampers stop the string's vibration when the key is released. Foot pedals can be used to control the duration of the vibrations.
The first string instrument to be played with struck strings was the hammered dulcimer, an instrument with a heritage that extends back to ancient Persia. During the Middle Ages, there were numerous attempts to invent instruments that used keyboards and struck strings. Two results were the clavichord and the harpsichord, which were common by the 17th century. The problem with these instruments, however, were volume and the expressive control of notes. The clavichord offered expressive control, but wasn't loud enough for performance. The harpsichord, which had strings plucked by quills rather than struck by hammers, was loud but lacked expressive control. The first piano is believed to be an attempt to solve this problem.
The invention of the modern piano is credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731), an Italian harpsichord maker employed by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany. It is not known exactly when Cristofori invented his first piano, but it seems to be around 1700. The instrument was initially called the fortepiano, a word that combined the Italian musical terms for both loudness (forte) and softness or quiet (piano).
Early pianos (such as those used by Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven) were different from the modern piano in several significant ways. They had a smaller octave range (four octaves, as opposed to the seven and a half or more of modern pianos), thinner strings, and a lighter case with no metal frame. By the end of the 19th century, following a period of rapid innovation fueled by the Industrial Revolution, the piano had evolved into the instrument as we know it today.
Pianos and other keyboard instruments came to the Americas as luxury items affordable only to the very rich, initially. It was only with the development of smaller and cheaper pianos that they began to gain in popularity among the middle class. By the end of the 19th century, before the advent of recorded music or radio, a piano was the center of the home entertainment system. The advent of Baby Grand and upright pianos also made it possible for bars and night clubs to feature affordable entertainment. Pianos were as ubiquitous in public spaces as the jukebox would become in the late '40s and '50s.
"Southern Casey Jones" is the third song in a row to be a variation of a song featured on the original three volume Anthology. The song is played in a style that clearly demonstrates the influence of jazz and jump blues, once more connecting the recording with the popular musical trends of the era in which it was recorded, rather than the folk styles of the past.
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Here's Andrew Calhoun performing a faithful ballad version of "Casey Jones."