Blogs > Jim Loewen > Wabash Cannonball

Jun 23, 2013

Wabash Cannonball

"Wabash Cannonball" is a light-hearted yet serious country-music song. It celebrates a train that went past my house at the southern edge of Decatur, Illinois, throughout my childhood. Maybe for that reason, my father bought Roy Acuff’s recording of it shortly after Columbia’s invention of the “LP” (long-playing record). I’ve heard this song since about 1950. I sang it myself – in public – in 2009. Now, I cannot get it out of my head.

Remembering Mark Twain’s famous short story "Punch, Brothers, Punch!", about the man who could not get a catchy jingle out of his head until he infected another person with it, in desperation, I turn to you. In the process of my passing the "Wabash Cannonball" on to you, we might enjoy a little railroad history together, perhaps a sort of baseball story, and even a bit of economic history from the 1890s.

Like several other railroads, the Wabash connected Chicago to St. Louis. It also went to Detroit and Kansas City. Perhaps its #2 claim to fame (after the song) was that its freight trains went fast, often averaging 55 and even 60 MPH. On many other railroads, then and now, freight trains trundle(d) along at 40 or even 20 MPH.

At this point I must acknowledge inadequate research for this article. I welcome corrections on any point in the first paragraph or any later paragraph. Nevertheless, I shall press onward, because the state of scholarship on "Cannonball" is not adequate, at least so far as I can find.

Along with "Orange Blossom Special," "Midnight Special," "City of New Orleans," and "The Wreck of the Old 97," "Wabash Cannonball" is one of the all-time best-selling songs about a specific train. So far as I can tell, it began as a different song about a different railroad, "The Great Rock Island Route," written by a J. A. Roff in 1882. (1) Roff wrote two versions, the first of which contained some of the lyrics we know today, including this version of the chorus:

Now listen to the jingle, and the rumble, and the roar,
As she dashes thro' the woodland, and speeds along the shore,
See the mighty rushing engine, hear her merry bell ring out,
As they speed along in safety, on the "Great Rock Island Route."

Sheet music for one version of J.A. Roff's "The Great Rock Island Route," predecessor to the "Wabash Cannonball."

Some of the place names also carry over, such as the Atlantic ocean and "Pacific shore," Chicago, and Minnesota, but most of the cities he mentioned were particular to the Rock Island Line -- Peoria, Rock Island, Davenport, and Council Bluffs. As well, both versions are paeans of praise to the "mighty corporation, called the great Rock Island Route."

As the song changed, it became neutral toward corporations or even anti-railroad. William Kindt copyrighted it in 1904 under the title "Wabash Cannonball." The Carter Family recorded it in 1929. Roy Acuff & his Smoky Mountain Boys recorded it at least twice, followed by Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell, Johnnie Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and many others. The Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland compiled a list of 500 "songs that shaped rock and roll"; "Wabash Cannonball" is the oldest song on the list.

One of the first recordings that Columbia Records ever released, this is the jacket for 9004, a ten-inch LP. Until then, 78 RPM records lasted only two to four minutes. Twelve-inch records, mostly for classical music and Broadway shows, playing at 33 RPM, could last half an hour. The ten-inch format was reserved for collections of popular music and played for twelve to fifteen minutes per side. Eventually, 12-inch records won out.

At more than 10,000,000 copies, Acuff's recording was also one of the best-selling records of all time. Here is his version on Columbia 9004.

From the great Atlantic ocean to the wide Pacific shore,
From the green [queen?] of flowing mountains to the South belle by the shore,
She's mighty tall and handsome, and known quite well by all --
She's the combination on the Wabash Cannonball.
She came down from Birmingham one cold December day.
As she rolled into the station, you could hear all the people say,
"There's a girl from Tennessee; she's long and she's tall.
She came down from Birmingham on the Wabash Cannonball."
Our eastern states are dandy, so the people always say,
From New York to St. Louis, and Chicago by the way,
From the hills of Minnesota where the rippling waters fall,
No changes can be taken on the Wabash Cannonball.
Here's to Daddy Claxton; may his name forever stand,
And always be remembered 'round the courts of Alabam.'
His earthly race is over; the curtains 'round him fall.
We'll carry him home to victory on the Wabash Cannonball.


Listen to the jingle, the rumble, and the roar,
As she glides along the woodland, through the hills, and by the shore.
Hear the mighty rush of her engine; hear that lonesome hobo's call.
You're travelling through the jungles on the Wabash Cannonball.

According to railroad historian Mike Schafer, the Wabash named one of its passenger trains for the song much later, rather than the song being named for the train, the usual case. (4) In the song, the train took on more glamour and more destinations than its flat boring route from Detroit to Fort Wayne, Indiana, Decatur, Illinois, and on to St. Louis. Schafer believes that the popularity of the song helped prompt the public outcry that prevented the Wabash from ending the train; it survived until Amtrak took over passenger service across the U.S. in 1971. Charles Kuralt of CBS-TV went along on that last run, with a version of the song as the soundtrack.

Places the song mentions include the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, an implicit reference to the Gulf of Mexico, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, "the hills of Minnesota," Birmingham, Tennessee, and Alabama. Indeed, one line even claims "You're travelin' through the jungle on the Wabash Cannonball."

On closer examination, however, the song never really says that the train went to all those places. "The hills of Minnesota" is a revision of "the lakes of Minnesota" from the predecessor version, "The Great Rock Island Route," which did go to Minnesota. The girl hails from Tennessee, but "she came down from Birmingham." That reference almost certainly is to Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit that is still the terminus of Amtrak's run to Detroit, probably because the yard is there. Otherwise, the line, "She came down from Birmingham one cold December day," would make little sense, because one would come up from Birmingham, and cold is not a major feature of Birmingham, Alabama. "Chicago by the way" also makes sense, since the Cannonball didn't go to Chicago; it was "by the way"; but other Wabash trains did, from both Detroit and St. Louis.

The line, "You're travelin' through the jungle on the Wabash Cannonball," does not refer to the Amazon or Congo but to "hobo jungles," the areas at the edge of town, often at the edge of the railroad yard, where hoboes camped -- and still do. Indeed, Wikipedia credits anarchist folksinger Utah Phillips with the statement that the "Wabash Cannonball" was a mythical train that hobos imagined would appear at their death to carry their soul to its reward. The "Wabash Cannonball" also gave rise to several other songs using its tune, including "Hail! Ye Brave Industrial Workers" and Woody Guthrie's "The Grand Coulee Dam." (3)

I had always thought that "lonesome hobo's call" referred generically to the mournful whistle of steam locomotives, commemorated in so many train songs as pulling at men whose attachment to their families and communities was fragile. Indeed, another song by Acuff on the same record, "Freight Train Blues," offers an example of this genre:

I got the freight train blues.
Lordy, lordy, lordy!
I got 'em in the bottom of my rambling shoes.
And when that whistle blows, I gotta go.
Oh, lordy!
Guess I'm never gonna lose those freight train blues.

But maybe it carries the more specific meaning of calling the hobo to paradise. We can no longer ask Utah Phillips, who died in 2008.

Roy Acuff was the Republican nominee for governor of Tennessee in 1948 and won more votes than any Republican candidate in the twentieth century to that point. Still he lost, two-to-one, unlike country singer Jimmie Davis, who served two terms as governor of Louisiana.

The last stanza of Acuff's version also has considerable historical significance. Daddy Claxton was a farmer in Alabama; I think he was African American. Like many farmers at that time -- maybe 1890, maybe as late as 1910, I'm not sure -- he was hurting, because the railroad had a monopoly. Crops and livestock went to market by rail. Cars and trucks did not exist. Only one railroad served most counties. Even when two did, they did not compete; they agreed upon a common rate. That rate almost bled their customers -- farmers -- dry, almost bankrupted them.

The Farmers Alliance, an interracial organization that predated the Populist Party, protested, but usually to no avail. Not knowing what to do, Claxton took matters into his own hands. He stole a train! Of course, his was only a partial solution, since he had no tracks. Eventually they caught him, of course, charged him with theft, and brought him to trial. I think he got off owing to jury nullification, but I'm not sure. I also no longer remember where I read or heard this story. But it cogently explains the lyrics: of course he would be remembered 'round the courts of Alabam' for this escapade, which encapsulated and publicized the plight of so many people.

Until the mid-1950s, baseball teams traveled by train. Here is the schedule for the New York Yankees in early September, 1950, for example:

Train to Washington, D.C., 9/9;
Play Senators, 9/10, followed by double-header, 9/11;
Overnight train to Cleveland, play Indians, 9/12, 9/13;
Train to Detroit, play Tigers, 9/14, 9/15, 9/16;
Overnight train to St. Louis, play Browns, double-header, 9/17;
Train to Chicago, 9/18;
Play White Sox, 9/19...

This meant that baseball teams went past my house, invisibly, on the Cannonball and other Wabash trains.

Only the Yankees were not always invisible. Twice during my childhood, I think -- once for sure -- the Decatur newspaper had a small story about how the Wabash put some Yankee baseball players off the train in Decatur owing to their bad behavior. The players, including their stars, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, then had to hire a taxi at their own expense to take them the 120 miles to St. Louis and hope they made it to the game on time and sober enough to play.

Ford and Mantle were both notorious alcohol abusers. Indeed, their drinking became an issue during contract negotiations for 1958. Ford's contract that year required him to promise "to obey all of the club's rules, not miss any trains or planes, and, as Casey Stengel phrased it, be able to tell midnight from noon," according to baseball writer Harold Friend. Naturally, these escapades in Decatur gave rise to a new verse for the "Cannonball." It sees print (4) below for the first time. (I did sing it in public once, at a community center for homeless persons in Moline, Illinois, as part of a speaking tour of the Quad Cities, but the less said about that, the better.) (5)

The Yankees -- Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and all the boys,
Were drinking in the club car in Decatur, Illinois.
They all got thrown off the train; they could not play baseball,
'Cause they were drunk and disorderly on the Wabash Cannonball.

The organizer of the concert for homeless people did not fully follow my introduction of the song. After my performance, he said to me, "I must have heard that song a hundred times, but I never heard that verse before." I just nodded sagely. Now, in the interest of more complete and accurate history -- baseball, train, and substance abuse -- I pass it on, without copyright, to the folksinging and hobo communities. I look forward to the day when I might hear it sung by, say, Emmylou Harris? Ricky Skaggs? Garrison Keillor? Jay-Z??

* * * * *

1: J. A. Roff, 1882, "The Great Rock Island Route!!", lyrics courtesy of the Rock Island Technical Society

From a rocky bound Atlantic, to a mild Pacific shore,
From a fair and sunny southland to an ice-bound Labrador,
There's a name of magic import and 'tis known the world throughout,
'Tis a mighty corporation, called the great Rock Island Route.


Now listen to the jingle, and the rumble, and the roar,
As she dashes thro' the woodland, and speeds along the shore,
See the mighty rushing engine, hear her merry bell ring out,
As they speed along in safety, on the "Great Rock Island Route."
All great cities of importance can be found along its way,
There's Chicago and Peoria and Rock Island so they say,
With Davenport, and westward still is Council Bluffs far out.
As a western termination of this Great Rock Island Route.
To the great southwest another, and a mighty line they run,
Reaching far famed Kansas City, Leavenworth and Atchison,
Rich in beauty, power, and grandeur, and they owe it all no doubt,
To the fact that they are stations, on the Great Rock Island Route
There's the "Northern Route," a daisy as you all can plainly see
To St. Paul, and Minneapolis, 'tis the famous "Albert Lea,"
To the lakes of Minnesota, and all points there 'round about
Reached directly by no other, than the "Great Rock Island Route."
Now let music soft and tender, in its mystic power reveal,
Praises to the "Great Rock Island," that the heart can only feel:
And to swell the mighty chorus -- comes the glad re-echoing shout,
That for safety, time and comfort, take the "Great Rock Island Route.

The foregoing lyrics clearly morphed into part of the song, "Wabash Cannonball." Meanwhile, in the same year, Roff wrote entirely different words, which a correspondent to the Rock Island Technical Society provided, in the form of a four page promotional newspaper published by the Rock Island Passenger Department in September of 1882:

Have you ever heard it rumored, As you journeyed to the West,
Of the many mighty railroads, Which was greatest and the best?
The public long have said it, And 'tis true, beyond a doubt,
That for safety, time and comfort, Take the "Great Rock Island Route".


Only listen to the jingle, and the rumble, and the roar,
As she dashes through woodland and skims along the shore!
See the mighty, rushing engine -- hear the merry bell ring out,
As they speed along in safety, on the "Great Rock Island Route"!
In her crowded palace coaches All is happiness and joy,
From the father and the mother To the little girl and boy;
And a sweet look of contentment From every face shines out --
For the people all are happy On the "Great Rock Island Route".


Through darkest hour of midnight Hear the rumble and the roar,
As she glides like bird of spring time Past the humble cottage door;
On, on into the darkness, With headlight streaming out
For the safety of the people On the "Great Rock Island Route".


Through prairies, rich and fertile With cities covered o'er;
On, through broad hills and valleys, to the great Missouri's shore.
Her name's in every household; 'Tis known the world throughout,
So procure at once your tickets By the "Great Rock Island Route".


Clearly the last set is an advertising jingle, not a folk song, whatever one's definition of "folk song" might be. It also had no influence after 1882.

2: Mike Schafer, More Classic American Railroads (Mendota, IL: Andover Junction Publ., 2000), 145.

3:Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle, "The Ballad Index," (2013), which may be a compilation of songs at California State University, Fresno.

4: Is HNN "print?"

5: There are five Quad Cities: Moline, East Moline, and Rock Island in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. Only a great country could have five Quad Cities! East Moline is smallest in population but at its city limits displays a large sign defiantly proclaiming "East Moline / One of the Quad Cities," and indeed, it was one of the original four.


Copyright James Loewen

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