Songs about Industrial Accidents

The Wreck of the Old '97

The Wreck of the Old '97

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.

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One Response to “Songs about Industrial Accidents”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Come, all you rounders, if you want to hear
    The story of a brave engineer;
    Casey Jones was the rounder’s name
    On the I & C Railroad he won his fame.

    Boss called Casey right at half past ten,
    “Gotta make the run to Canton again,
    Sim, pour in the water and shovel the coal,
    Stick your head out the window; watch the drivers roll.”

    Casey Jones mounted to the cabin
    Casey Jones, orders in his hand
    Casey Jones mounted to the cabin
    Took his farewell trip to the Promised Land.

    2. It was early morning, it began to rain,
    He headed south on the Cannonball train.
    The switchmen knew by the engine’s moans
    That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.

    “I’ll run her till she leaves the rail.
    We’re one hour late with the southbound mail,”
    He turned to Sim and this is what he said,
    “On time to Canton or we’ll all be dead.”

    3. On the saw-by at Vaughn was a passenger train
    The red caboose sticking out on the main
    Casey turned to Sim and said “You’d better jump
    ‘Cause there’s two locomotives that are going to bump.”

    Casey’s body was found in the wreck
    One hand on the whistle and one on the brake
    The great engineer was strong and brave
    Saved the passengers but went to his grave.

    All kinds of heartache, all kinds of pain
    They all ride along on a railroad train.
    Stories of brave men, noble and grand,
    Belong to the life of the railroad man.

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