Thursday, July 9, 2009

Black ballads (3) : Railroad Bill and Kassie Jones, Heroes of the railway

Will Bennett - Railroad Bill (buy) (1929)

Furry Lewis - Kassie Jones (two parts) (buy) (1928)

On March 7, 1896, a man was shot at Tidmore and Ward’s general store in Atmore, Alabama (see photo above), and fell dead with 15 bullets in his body. The authorities and newspapers identified him as Railroad Bill, the famous outlaw who had been robbing trains in the Louisville to Nashville (L&N) railroad line and around, and murdered (at least) a lawman and 2 sheriffs that ware sent after him. You can find his whole story here at the Encyclopedia of Alabama, and an account of his death here at Lady Muleskinner Press.

Railroad Bill soon became a hero, especially to African Americans, who saw him as a symbol of rebellion against white power in these hard times of increasing segregation. He was said to be a sort of Robin Hood, selling stolen goods to the poor at a cheap price, and as a trickster and even a shapeshifter, able to turn into a dog or a fox when he was hunted. As Paul Oliver writes in his book Songsters and Saints :

Railroad Bill was the bad man/hero who was admired and feared by the black community; the outlaw on whom could be projected the challenge to the dominant whites, which, in a troubled time, they were too afraid to make themselves.
Ballads about Railroad Bill started circulating around 1900, and in 1929 Will Bennett, an unknown songster, recorded the most famous afro-american version in Tennessee. He puts himself in the place of the outlaw with a long description of his weapons, exactly like a gangsta rapper of the 1980's...

Kassie Jones (or Casey Jones, see photo above) was another great hero of the railway and subject of numerous ballads. He was the opposite of Railroad Bill : a white ingeneer who died in 1900 at the controls of his machine in a collision with another train while speeding to make up for lost time.

As he did for "John Henry" and the ballads on the Harry Smith anthology, Gadaya at The Old Weird America made a great post about Kassie Jones, including Lewis'bio, the whole story of the events depicted in the song and the history of the Casey Jones ballad. You can also find 50 different versions of the song !

Go to the Kassie Jones post on Old Weird America and find 40 different versions

While white singers emphasized the heroic behavior of the engineer and made him a symbol of self-sacrifice (he stayed at the control trying to stop his train and asked his fireman to jump to safety), the Furry Lewis version, which is the first recorded by an Afro-American, is quite different. Furry Lewis was an ex-hobo who had lost the use of a leg while trying to get on board of a train in his youth.

If you look at Furry Lewis' version (see here the lyrics of the traditional "white" ballad and the Furry Lewis version) it is not a chronological account of the facts but a sort of "stream of consciousness", jumping from the story to the narrator's point of view and to verses that seem to have no relation to Casey Jones and are borrowed from other ballads. The emphasis is not only on Kassie (who becomes almost a secondary character) but also on the figure of the "easeman" or "eastman", the narrator. Here's the final stanza :
I left Memphis to spread the news
Memphis women don't wear no shoes
Had it written in the back of my shirt
Natural born Eastmen don't have to work
Don't have to work
I'm a natural born Eastman, don't have to work

which makes Paul Oliver write :

The Eastman, or easeman, was a hustler, who lived by his wits, and, most often, as a pimp. Perhaps because the principal figure was white, perhaps because he died at the throttle straining to make up time, Casey Jones seems not to have been an enduring hero-figure in black ballads compared with the popularity of the engineer in white songs. If the moral of the story to some white singers was a reckless attention to duty, Furry Lewis's insouciant final stanza makes it clear where he stood.

In fact, just like Will Bennett's "Railroad Bill", it is very typical of what Paul Oliver calls the "blues ballad". The words are improvised, only the general structure is pre-established, with stanzas and, in the case of "Railroad Bill", a one-line refrain. In every recording Furry Lewis did of "Kassie Jones", the words were different : some new stanzas appeared and some others were put in a different place. These traits are found in the blues too.

Will Bennett ends his "Railroad Bill" with stanzas about his alcoholism, which have nothing to do with the Railroad BIll story. It is, in a sense, very symbolical of how the blues was born. Songsters, in addition to playing the old ballads, started to sing about their personal experience. The blues is very often sung in the first person.

I guess I've told you enough for today...

PS : Let me add, as a bonus track for those who'll have read the whole text, a great cover of Kassie Jones by Rory Block, 70 years after !

Rory Block - Kassie Jones (buy) (1998)

1 comment:

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Wow amazing story, I guess it can't be helped that this guys was a nice performer and he had good music if you ask me, anyway thanks for sharing.