Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Liner Notes to 900 Miles

Page 2

Before the gold spike was driven that linked the first iron road to span the nation in 1869, the restless sea of the desert and the high Sierras seemed each forbidding and unconquerable. The boomers, whose who constructed the road, like the prospectors, could sing a tune like "The Roamer" with their hearts in it.

Long before the blues and jazz became widely known, the melodic form basic to them, called The Holler, had become part of American folk music. It was not a set form, such as the 12-bar blues became, but instead a style which lent itself to adaptation. Whether a simple chant or a rhythmic work song, it usually contained a story, or at least a fragment of one. Cowboys and oil roustabouts each have sung "Gettin' Up Holler", but its verses fit a railroad work gang like a 999-mile shirt fits a boomer.

The origins of "Wreck of the Old '97" are disputed. Early versions indicate that at least one rail man, David Graves George, had a hand in writing some of the verses. The generally accepted source for the melody is a song called "The Ship That Never Returned." That one was a 19th-century pop tune. Early American songs borrowed English tunes, and this was true of popular music as well. In this album, "The Brave Engineer" and "The Great American Bum" suggest this constant, healthy interchange between folk and popular music.

"The Wreck of the Old '97" illustrates that folk songs change in the singing of them. Many years ago the song had an innocuous first stanza, but it was dropped quickly so that the singer gets us right into the story:

"Well, he gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Saying 'Steve, you're way behind time;
This is not 38, but it's Old '97,
You must put her into Danville on time."

This stanza states the situation, gives us the setting, and creates suspense. It has forceful, effective narration. It tells us something about railroading, and about folksong. Monroe was a divisional point where Joe Broady, who was nicknamed Steve after Steve Brody, a man who famously jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge on a dare, got his orders for the run to Spencer, North Carolina. Being hog jockey on the Old '97 was like being money rider on the race track. The "Old" was a term of affection for a comparatively new engine. It was a fast mail train, no passengers. Its owners earned about $140,000 a year on it. On the night of the wreck it carried two mail cars, a baggage car and an express car which featured a consignment of canaries. The run was an hour off schedule coming into Monroe. Broady's impossible task was to shave an hour off of a four-hour run. Early versions of this stanza put the run through to Spencer, but folksingers trimmed fact to meet the demands of art. That "Mighty rough road, from Lynchburg to Danville," was in fact, the gist of the story.

In the third stanza, it was the air brake he lost in early examples of the song. It is possible that "average" was substituted because it sang more easily. At any rate, it has metaphoric justification. Freeman Hubbard, in the book "Railroad Avenue" suggests that at the end, neither of Broady's hands were on the throttle, but that one was on the brake lever, the other on "reverse." At that moment, the flanges let go the rails, and the ten-wheeler hurtled down a gully, leaping 100 feet ahead of the place she left the track. Hubbard writes that her nose was buried in the muddy bank of a stream in a cow pasture. The five cars followed, tearing off the corner of a cotton mill in their mad plunge. The impact broke open the large express case of canaries. Unexpectedly liberated, the birds escaped to nearby pines. Through the crackle of flame and the hiss of steam, rescuers were treated to an incongruous flood of melody.

The talk of old-time railroaders was spiced with the slang of badmen and bordellos. The grifters, the bad bums and the gamblers were the camp followers of railway work gangs. In this group of songs, the gambler is sympathetically drawn, but just as often was a trigger-happy scoundrel.

Carl Sandburg writes in his book "Songbag" that there was an actual "Railroad Bill." He shot to kill, was feared and hunted. Southern negro work gangs, says Sandburg, have fixed him in ballads of hundreds of lines. Here, in Cisco's version, are some of the most descriptive stanzas, wrapped in one package, pointing unmistakably to Southern and mountain antecedents. In the line that makes up the refrain, the word "ride" is much more ominous, powerful and threatening than its surface sense of mere harassment. The illiterate Southern negro, just like the illiterate Southern white, got to the heart of a word and made it vibrate.

A tramp worked when necessary. A bum neither worked, nor traveled, except when impelled to motion by the police. In practice, words like bum, tramp and hobo were loosely used, even by the bums themselves. The etymology of hobo is uncertain. It may be a simple contraction, assuming "ho" to be a greeting, and taking "bo" to mean pal, man, brother and so forth. On the other hand, "ho" could relate to hoose-gow, or to the one-time sense of hoosier as a road or highway. There were obviously more tramp philosophers than philologists.

Copyright laws and high-flown intellectual concepts tend to obscure the fact that "originality" is the discovery of relationships. Everything was goulash to the mulligan of hobo poets and singers. The Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, were free-thinking, free-wheeling organization-minded individualists. They quoted abolitionists and Abe Lincoln and wrote doggeral for the underdogs. Their poet laureate was Joe Hill, a singer, organizer, boomer and trade unionist. When he was caught, and shot to death by the State of Utah in what is considered by many to be a frame-up, his ashes were sent in small envelopes to the far corners of the world. They were scattered to friendly winds in order to make fertile the flowers of freedom.

In the early part of the 20th century, much of folksong had an awkward grace. The clumsy and the commonplace were part of the earthiness in American writing. Bret Harte, Mark Twain and Jack London often talked a language which came naturally to the boomers and bums. "The Rambler" is a boomer's song, and one of the best. The boomer dreams of settling down, but there's the siren sound of the whistle blowing and he grabs a fast freight. The last hope of his lonely wandering is a friendly grave beside the tracks "So I can hear the trains roll by."

"Hobo Bill" is a dirge for a bum, an affectionate and homely elegy. If you knew the thousands of scattered stanzas that a singer has to sort out in his mind when he picks up his guitar, you'd appreciate statistically what a good job Cisco Houston has done. He has made up each song in the shape of its story, and lets his voice roll along the railroad ties of his guitar. You will have noticed, in these and other songs, that the engine is a "she." That's good folk tradition and comes naturally to railroad men, even when the big brass call engines by male names such as Tom Thumb and DeWitt Clinton. Possibly for this reason, the term "Jack" for a locomotive never caught on---it's a masculine word.

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