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June 7, 2008 6:49 AM   Subscribe

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the iconic American folk song The Wabash Cannonball was written as a tribute to an actual train, but in fact, in an interesting case of life-imitates-art, the actual train name was inspired by the song. The Lake Erie, Wabash, and St. Louis Railroad Company was formed in 1852, but there was no train called the “Cannonball” when the song was first sung late in the 19th century. There have been many, many, many wonderful versions through the years, but I think Roy Acuff pretty much owns it, wouldn't you say? [NOTE: See hoverovers for link descriptions]

Scroll down on this Dick Kay and the Demise of the Wabash page and you'll find: "Click here to view streaming video of Dick Kay's Wabash Cannonball piece". It's an NBC news report from 1971, when the Wabash Cannonball was taken out of service. Interesting.

I had never heard of him before researching this post, but Matthew Sabatella has a nice version that you can hear on this page, selling his CD. Scroll down to "Wabash Cannonball Listen".

This version by a coupla good ole boys with 'lectric guitars playing along to a cheesy backing track probably won't win any awards, but they've thoughtfully included, in the text description of their video, a list of "variations" to be found in the lyrics of different versions.

Here's a discography for Blind Willie McTell. You'll note his version of Wabash Cannonball was recorded at his "Last Session", in 1956, and released in 1962.

Wabash Railroad Wikipedia page.

A stretch of former Wabash Railroad track has been reclaimed as the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, popular, apparently, with bicyclists.
posted by flapjax at midnite (20 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Huh, never heard this before but I was immediately reminded of Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land". Don't know if his was "inspired", or just a knock off - or not related at all, but it is in the same vein.
posted by qwip at 7:12 AM on June 7, 2008

...reminded of Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land.

It's the same tune, essentially, and hell, it even talks about a train (the "Midnight Flyer"), and namedrops Birmingham, just like Wabash Cannonball... it does end with with our hero on an airplane, though, cause, hey, it's rock'n'roll!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:18 AM on June 7, 2008

BTW, The Band does a real nice version of Promised Land, with Levon Helm on vocals. Gotta say, ol' Chuck Berry looked good in that clip, but was playing pretty fast and loose with pitch, and I think he flubbed the lyrics, too...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:23 AM on June 7, 2008

Oh, and just to be YouTube completist here, another Acuff rendition, though, truth be told, by this time Roy had seen better days...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:30 AM on June 7, 2008

Yet another great post! Thanks flapjax at midnite, you're my favorite pancake!
posted by pjern at 7:40 AM on June 7, 2008

I really like Scott H Biram's version. I can't find a video link though.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 8:27 AM on June 7, 2008

The only version besides Roy Acuff's that I know is Lonnie Donegan's. I can't find his version on YouTube, but his cover of Grand Coulee Dam is almost identical.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:47 AM on June 7, 2008

From Jazz guitarist John Scofield (with Saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Anthony Cox, and drummer John Riley), Wabash III.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 8:49 AM on June 7, 2008

Nice mix of music and history, flapjax! Thank you.
posted by owhydididoit at 8:51 AM on June 7, 2008

Lonnie also covers my favourite train song.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:56 AM on June 7, 2008

And I grew up with the Doc Watson version, so there's another one. However, I don't know how to upload it, so here's the amazon page that has the preview thingee.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:57 AM on June 7, 2008

Woody Guthrie used the tune to write "(The Ballad of the)Grand Coulee Dam," which was commissioned by the BPA as propaganda for the dam projects. (Ditto "Roll On Columbia" from "Goodnight Irene")

And here's skiffle king Lonnie Donegan covering Grand Coulee Dam.
posted by dw at 11:17 AM on June 7, 2008

(That last link because I missed PeterMcDermott linking to Lonnie Donegan already. Sigh.)
posted by dw at 11:19 AM on June 7, 2008

Your posts are always great fun, but you have really outdone yourself on this one.
posted by caddis at 12:41 PM on June 7, 2008

Thanks, flapjax! Your posts on music and history are always enjoyable and informative. I didn't know there was a hobo legend that the Wabash Cannonball got going so fast it eventually shot off into outer space - maybe NASA should keep an eye out for it.

Hey, do you take requests? Could you do something like this for "House of the Rising Sun"? That's a great old song with some interesting history, especially the male/female versions.

*keeps fingers crossed*

posted by Quietgal at 2:02 PM on June 7, 2008

A stretch of former Wabash Railroad track has been reclaimed as the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, popular, apparently, with bicyclists.

Flapjax, at the risk of a derail (*ahem*) you should know (if you didn't) that converting disused railroad right of ways to multi-use trails has become quit a phenomenon, particularly in the midwest, riddled as it is with them.

In brief, rails-to-trails helps keep existing rights of way maintained and useful while preserving them AS legal rights-of-way -- just in case someday in the future something like, say, $5/gal petrol convinces Americans that maybe mass trans was a pretty good idea after all.

The Rails-to-trails conservancy
posted by Herodios at 6:47 PM on June 7, 2008 the risk of a derail (*ahem*)...

How DARE you derail a train thread!

But of course, you're referring to one of the links in the FPP, therefore it's far from a derail! And true, I just tossed that link in cause I found it interesting (and a damn good idea), so it's good to know that this (rails-to-trails) is a bona fide phenomenon. And you make an interesting point about the potential for returning to rail travel in the US. That would be a damn great thing, wouldn't it?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:53 PM on June 7, 2008

When railtrail conversions first started, it seemed far in the future. Now, who knows?

Perhaps we'll build elevated maglevs above the new trails so the ROWs can be used for both.

Perhaps I'd like another whiskey. Yes, that seems more likely.

Carry on.
what a beautiful world it will be. . .what a glorious time to be free. . .
posted by Herodios at 7:13 PM on June 7, 2008

Pour me one while you're at it, there, 'dios...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:05 PM on June 7, 2008

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