CASEY JONES - the performers 

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BILLY MURRAY (1877—1954) 

Billy Murray started as a member of travelling minstrel shows, variety acts and medicine shows and  began his recording career in 1897 in San Francisco. By 1903 he had moved to New York and waxed untold hundreds of recordings in a staggering number of genres until taste and technology changed around 1927 and put an end to his star recording career.  Murray ended up at the Fleischer animation studios singing for their popular “Bouncing Ball” mixed live-action/animation shorts and providing voices for several cartoon characters. 

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FIDDLIN JOHN CARSON (1868-1949) 

One of the Founding Fathers of early hillbilly recording, Carson was a locally famous street musician and contest fiddler around Atlanta, where the millworker-turned- beloved mascot of Georgia state politicians through numerous election campaigns. Carson was rewarded in his dotage with running the elevator at the Georgia State House.  

Carson was the street performer poet laureate of the infamous 1912 trial of Leo Frank  providing ongoing improvised song lyrics on the steps of the Atlanta courthouse to the assembled crowds  He is said to have had an endless supply of rhymes for the phrase "dirty Brooklyn Jew." 

It was Atlanta furniture store owner Polk Brockman who first saw Carson’s recording potential and convinced OKeh record head Ralph Peer to release “Little Old Log Cabin In the Lane” which sold out leading to his recording some 70 records until 1934.

The Atlanta building where Carson made country music recording history was recently torn down to make way for one in a chain of  Jimmy Buffet "Margaritaville" restaurants. 

 
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JESSE JAMES (18? -19?) 

Nothing is known about pianist/singer Jesse James whose muscular and rocking rhythms bring a train-like motion to this version. James’ use of stop-time phrasing — and its end of verse release — propels the piece forward with repeated lines underscoring the building narrative. James’ crazy quilt version seems to have evolved without much help from the Seibert-Newton version  but does evoke other railroad themed songs such as Charlie Poole’s 1930 “Milwaukee Blues.” 

.        Jesse James owed something to Furry Lewis’s lengthy and meandering “Kassie Jones” (1928).  James added an intriguing older verse that doesn’t quite make sense:

 

         Now Casey Jones said before he died, he fixed the road so a bum could ride

         An’ if he ride, he had to ride the rod, rest his heart in the hand of God

 

         In his book Long Steel Rail, Norm Cohen’s detailed account of “Casey Jones” includes a 1911 letter to the Kansas City Star by a railroad hobo, Kelley the Rake, citing a song he claimed to have written about the railroad monopolist Jay Gould (1836-1892) that’s less ambiguous:

 

         Now old Jay Gould said before he died, “I’ll fix the blind so the ‘bos can’t ride

         If they ride, they will ride a rod, and place their life in the hands of God”

 

         To “ride the rod” is to cling to rod supports beneath a freight car while a train is moving.  Kelley noted that “Gould, for reasons of economy, removed the platform from the Missouri Pacific mail and baggage cars, thus eliminating a safe and comfortable means of transportation for [ho]bos.”  

 

© 2020 by Henry Sapoznik

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