I was listening back through my iTunes collection when I came across some songs by The Seekers. First was “Morningtown Ride“, which I still find strangely touching and then a couple of tracks further on came the fast moving “Wreck of the Old 97” . This is a great ballad describing a horrific industrial accident which occurred in 1903, killing 9 people. What struck me was that the driver Steve Brady was portrayed as a hero for trying to make up lost time and deliver the mail on time.
They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Sayin’ “Steve, you’re way behind time;
It’s 8:38, and it’s the Old ’97;
Gotta put her into Danville on time.”
So began the chain of events that must have initiated a thousand industrial accidents: workers being asked to operate machinery outside their safe working limits. Also the railway track had been poorly maintained:
Well, it’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg down to Danville,
On a line with a three-mile grade;
At first things went well, and Steve clearly thought he could make up an hour on a four hour train ride.
Steve Brady he said to his black, greasy fireman,
“Shovel on a little more coal;
I’m waitin’ to pass them wide-open mountains;
Gonna see the Old ’97 roll.”
But then they took a bend too fast at the bottom of long hill
It was down that line where he lost his air-brakes;
and the consequences are gruesomely recorded .
He’s comin’ down that line makin’ ninety miles an hour
The whistle broke into a scream;
They found him in the wreck with his hand upon the throttle;
He’d been scalded to death by steam.
It is a measure of how times have changed that the company and the staff are portrayed here as heroically trying to achieve a ‘production target’. Nowadays this would be seen as criminally reckless. And although we are generally safer than we ever were at any point in history, I can’t help feeling that in losing this sense of heroism about our work, we have lost a little something: if only a genre of songs about industrial accidents.