December 28

The Inspirational Song: “Wreck of the Old 97”

The song “Wreck of the Old 97” served as an inspiration for balladeers. The most famous record is by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter. These Virginia musicians were the very first to do a commercial cover of the track. In 1924, they released a version by Vernon Dalhart—having Victor Record no. 19427. Many considered the said version to be the first million-selling country music release in the American record industry. Here Dalhart played the song with his harmonica and Frank Ferrera joined him with his guitar.

The Story Behind the Song

To sing the song, one must follow the tune of “The Ship That Never Returned”. The great words of the song came from Henry Clay Work in 1865. Originally, the lyrics were attributed to Fred Jackson Lewey and co-author Charles Noell. Lewey claimed that he wrote it the day after the accident. It was for his cousin Albion Clapp who was one of the two firemen killed in the tragedy. Lewey worked in a cotton mill that was at the base of the trestle. In addition, he claimed that he was on the scene of the accident pulling the victims from the wreckage. Later, musician Henry Whitter subsequently polished the original. He altered the lyrics and this resulted in the version performed by Dalhart.

The ballad clearly puts the blame for the wreck on the railroad company for pressuring Steve Broady to exceed a safe speed limit. It is in the lines:

Well, they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia, saying, ‘Steve, you’re way behind time; this is not 38 it is Old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.

Vernon Dalhart - Wreck Of The Old '97 (1924)
Vernon Dalhart – Wreck Of The Old ’97 (1924)

Its Popularity and Artists

Since then, “Wreck of the Old 97” has been recorded by numerous artists. One is by Dalhart himself in 1924 under the name Sid Turner on Perfect 12147. The others were The Statler Brothers (feat. Johnny Cash), Charlie Louvin of The Louvin Brothers, Pink Anderson,  David Holt, Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Chuck Ragan, Hank Williams III, Patrick Sky, Nine Pound Hammer, Roy Acuff, Boxcar Willie, Lonnie Donegan, The Seekers, Ernest Stoneman & Kahle Brewer, Carolyn Hester, Bert Southwood, and Hank Snow. Other accompaniments used were a banjo and a fiddle, while the lyrics were either sung, crooned, yodeled, whistled, hummed, recited, or chanted. The song rivaled that of “Casey Jones” for being the number one railroading song of all time.


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