The “Ballad of Casey Jones” is a traditional song about railroad engineer Casey Jones
and his death at the controls of the train he was driving. It tells of how Jones and his
fireman Sim Webb raced their locomotive to make up for lost time, but discovered
another train ahead of them on the line, and how Jones remained on board to try to stop
the train as Webb jumped to safety. The song helped preserve the memory of Jones’ feat
down through the years in its 40+ versions and enhanced Casey’s legendary status to the
extent that he has even become something of a mythological figure like Pecos Bill or
Paul Bunyan to the uninformed. Books and pulp magazines about the railroad and its
heroes helped to perpetuate his memory as well.
Soon after Casey’s death, the song it was first sung by an engine wiper and friend of
Casey’s known as Wallace Saunders to the tune of a popular song of the time known as
“Jimmie Jones“. He was known to sing and whistle as he went about his work cleaning
the steam engines. In the words of Casey’s wife: “Wallace’s admiration of Casey was
little short of idolatry. He used to brag mightily about Mr. Jones even when Casey was
only a freight engineer.” As railroaders stopped in Canton, Mississippi they would pick
up the song and pass it along. Soon it was a hit up and down the I.C. line. But it was up to
others with a profit motive to take it and rework it for a nationwide audience. Illinois
Central Engineer William Leighton appreciated the song’s potential enough to tell his
brothers Frank Leighton and Bert Leighton, who were vaudeville performers, about it.
They took it and sang it in theaters around the country with a chorus they added. But
apparently even they neglected to get it copyrighted. Reportedly Saunders received a
bottle of gin for the use of the song. Nothing more was heard from him after this time and
he passed into history as the man who helped to make Casey Jones an integral part of
By World War I, dozens of versions had been published and millions of copies were sold,
securing the memory of a new American folk hero. Poet Carl Sandburg called the song
“Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer” as the “greatest ballad ever written”.
Come all you rounders if you want to hear
Astory ’bout a brave engineer,
Casey Jones was the rounder’s name
“Twas on the Illinois Central that he won his fame.
Casey Jones, he loved a locomotive.
Casey Jones, a mighty man was he.
Casey Jones run his final locomotive
With the Cannonball Special on the old I.C.
Casey pulled into memphis on Number Four,
The engine foreman met him at the roundhouse door;
Said, “Joe Lewis won’t be able to make his run
So you’ll have to double out on Number One.”
If I can have Sim Webb, my fireman, my engine 382,