Liner Notes to 900 Miles
Here, in slightly edited form, are the original liner notes from "900 Miles and other R.R. Songs" by Cisco Houston on Folkways album number FA2013. This 10" vinyl LP was released in 1953. The copyrighted notes are by Charles Edward Smith. This album is available on CD from Smithsonian/Folkways, as are other early '50's Cisco records, by special order.
In these songs of railroaders and ramblers, Cisco Houston, who got his nickname from a California town, takes us to some of the crossroads and corners he has turned in real life. Singing down the dusty road, riding the bouncing boxcars or sailing out of a blacked-out port on the Murmansk run, the tunes of hoggers and hobos were in his blood. The lonesome whistle of the Red Ball freight cut through the wall of his blues. In his songbook, the one known as oral tradition, the drivers are still rolling. The gamblers, the work gangs, the boomers and the bums are highballing it out of nowhere, 900 miles from home.
In the year that President Thomas Jefferson consummated the Louisiana Purchase, pushing westward the territorial limits of the United States, Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, England built the first "locomotive" designed for rails. In the mining industry, particularly, the efficiency of rails for traction was already known. What was needed was to hitch an "iron" horse to the wagon. Horatio Allen, a canal engineer, brought the first steam locomotive to America. He drove it over imported rails for a few miles through the Pennsylvania woods. That experiment was not a commercial success because the engine could barely haul its own weight, but it foreshadowed a new era. The use of canals for transport was not ended, but the prospect of vast networks of canal systems was doomed.
During the next 50 years the work gangs from canals and flatboats rolled up their shirts, socks and songs, and moved on to railroad construction jobs. In 1830, the first American engine, Peter Cooper's "Tom Thumb", was built to tackle the hills and curves of the American terrain. A Baltimore newspaper man, Ross Winans, developed the prototype of the modern railway coach. It was a 60-passenger coach, resting on two four-wheel trucks.
In 1831, the Mohawk and Hudson line put into service the "DeWitt Clinton", which blazed a trail for today's "Twentieth Century Limited." Matthias Baldwin was a Philadelphia jeweler. He constructed a miniature, designed from a famous British locomotive. This act not only made him the first American hobbyist in this field, but got him an order to fashion a full-size engine. His product was dubbed "Old Ironsides."
To some historians, the rail barons of the 19th century alternate as either Christians in the arena, or the lions. The situation was never that simple. Railroads were public carriers, crossing state lines. They sometimes followed the old wagon trails, sometimes carved out new ones. Government and state subsidies were sought. Public confidence and sympathy was cultivated. From today's vantage point, their treatment of workers seems almost brutal. Their betrayal of conservation of natural resources appears callous. At the time, however, such concerns were secondary in the fierce competitiveness of their own struggle.
At the end of the 19th century, rail barons were hated as enthusiastically by labor groups as were the tycoons of coal and steel, and not without reason. The Pullman strike of 1894, led by Eugene Debs, ended in bloodshed and blackballing. However, it helped establish the right and need of labor to decent work and living conditions. It also established a common bond in all workers involved with railroading. This bond is most apparent in the speech and song of railroader and rambler, from the highballing hogger to the Joe Hill hobo.
H.L. Mencken, in his book "The American Language" says: "A large part of the argot of hobos is borrowed from railroad men. In both, a locomotive is a hog and an engineer is a hoghead or hogger." Words and slang expressions were devised to fit the growth of railroading itself. Much of this language was local to a line, or an area. The binding force of language, and its inner vitality, are to be found in idiomatic usage. Lustiness in language, particularly in folksong, is an expression of virility rather than an idle trafficking in smut.
Theuse of the verbal form of jack in Gettin' Up Holler, apart from any specialized significance it may have in context, relates to the old English connotation of this woord of Greek-Hebraic ancestry. According to Vance Randolph in an article in American Speech, it was avoided in colloquial speech in the Ozarks, even in compounds, though other terms considered obscene or vulgar elsewhere were quite acceptable. This is an example of a local taboo but it may be noted that vis-a-vis American and English usage, words that are merely ingenious in one environment become vulgar or obscene in another.
There is probably no sound in America so universally nostalgic as that of a train whistle at night. It is a siren song of distant places and a sickness for home. It is an ache in the stomach and an ache in the heart. It's in the blues and in boogie-woogie, in hymns and in honky-tonk tunes. It is in hundreds of railroad songs. It is expressed in simple, homely eloquence in the title song of this recording. "900 Miles" takes its guitar rhythm from a train and borrows a blues strain to shade its melody. In folk song, hyperbole expresses the unbelievable: "You can hear her whistle blow a million miles."
Whistles once had as much individuality as engines and engineers. Casey Jones fashioned a six-tone whistle for his ill-fated "Cannonball." The "Old '97" had a distinctive, sad-sweet whistle, known all along the line. One engineer blasted his name to the countryside with skillfully timed jerks of the cord.