10 January, 2010

"Engine One-Forty-Three" - The Carter Family

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Nine: "Engine One-Forty-Three" performed by The Carter Family. "Vocal solo (by Sara Carter) with autoharp, guitar." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 15, 1929. Original issue Victor 400989B.

This is the second recording by the Carter Family to appear on the Anthology. For biographical information, and for information on the autoharp, see the entry for "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man."

"Engine One-Forty-Three" (hereafter "Engine 143") tells the true story of George Alley, an engineer on the C&O Railroad (the same railroad on which both John Henry and John Hardy were employed), who was killed when his train was derailed.

The report reached the city this morning that train No. 4, (the vestibuled) had been derailed a short distance east of Hinton, and the investigation by the ADVERTISER shows that there was an accident to this train, but not so bad as at first rumored.

At about 5 o’clock this morning the train ran into a rock, which had rolled on the track from the mountain above, two miles east of Hinton. The train was running at good speed, and the collision caused the engine and express and postal cars to be derailed. The engine was badly damaged, and in overturning caught the engineer, George Alley, of Clifton Forge, well known here, in some of the machinery, breaking his right arm and scalding him so severely that he died six hours after the accident occurred.

Two firemen, who were on the engine were also scalded but sustained no other injuries. No one else, either of the crew or passengers, was injured, though all of them had a shaking up and a bad scare. No particular damage was done to the passenger cars and at 9:30 the track was cleared and the train started east.
- Huntington Daily Advertiser
October 23, 1890

According to Smith's notes, the song was likely composed by a worker in the round house at Hinton, West Virginia.

Along came the F15, the swiftest on the line.
Running o’er the C&O road just twenty minutes behind.
Running into Cevile, head porters on the line,
Receiving their strict orders from a station just behind.

Georgie’s mother came to him with a bucket on her arm.
Saying, "My darling son, be careful how you run.
For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time.
And if you run your engine right, you’ll get there just on time."

Up the road he darted, against the rocks he crushed.
Upside down the engine turned and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high.
"I’m glad I was born for an engineer to die on the C&O road."

The doctor said to Georgie, "My darling boy, be still.
Your life may yet be saved, if it is God’s blessed will."
"Oh no," said George, "That will not do, I want to die so free.
I want to die for the engine I love, one hundred and forty three."

The doctor said to Georgie, "Your life cannot be saved.
Murdered upon a railroad and laid in a lonesome grave."
His face was covered up with blood, his eyes they could not see.
And the very last words poor Georgie said,
Was, "Nearer, my God, to Thee."

The song as sung by the Carter Family focuses on Alley's heroic death, but also acts as a cautionary tale. In what is likely an ahistorical addition to the song, George Alley's mother (with "a bucket on her arm") warns him against speeding in order to make up lost time. At the beginning of the song, the speaker notes that the train is "just twenty minutes behind" and then flashes back to the warning, clearly not heeded. Like the story of the Titanic, then, this is a story of man's hubris resulting in disaster. If Georgie had just listened to his mother, none of this would have happened.

Although it is never mentioned in "When That Great Ship Went Down," "Nearer My God To Thee" was - of course - the hymn played by the orchestra while the Titanic sank. "Engine 143" makes "nearer my God to thee" George Alley's last words, creating a link between the two songs (and undoubtedly the reason that Smith chose to put the songs in sequence).

As we have seen throughout the "Ballads" set, the songs have been placed in a rough chronology, taking us from the events of the Middle Ages in "Henry Lee" up through the first decades of the twentieth century. For some reason, however, Smith's chronology deviates slightly around this point in the "Ballads" set. The events described in the last five songs are all based on verifiable historical fact. "Stackalee" is based on a shooting that took place in 1895. "White House Blues" is based on the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. "Frankie" is based on events from 1899. "When That Great Ship Went Down" is based on the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. "Engine 143" takes us back to 1890, five years before Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons. Why? Why not sequence the songs in strict chronological order? Clearly, Smith had reasons beyond chronology for placing songs in a certain sequence.

One reason is that Smith sequenced songs thematically as well as chronologically. With "Stackalee," "White House Blues," and "Frankie," Smith gives us three songs about shootings. But why place "Frankie" after "White House Blues" instead of after "Stackalee"? It is possible that Smith was also concerned with the feel or mood of the specific songs. "Frankie" is sung quietly, contrasting it with both the song before it ("White House Blues") and the song after it ("When That Great Ship Went Down"). It is also possible that Smith had reasons beyond any we can hope to fathom. We can only listen and wonder.

With the exception of Versey Smith's contribution to "When That Great Ship Went Down," this is the first female vocal on the Anthology since Sara Carter's previous appearance on "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man."

The Shameless Plug Department Takes Manhattan: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

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Here's a performance of "Engine 143" by Greg Reish, recorded live in Chicago on February 20, 2009.

Download and listen to The Carter Family - "Engine One-Forty-Three"

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