Lost on the Rails
Horrible train wrecks were an all too common occurrence in the days of steam locomotives. Many of the more spectacular wrecks have been remembered in song. The heroic actions of Casey Jones is said to have saved the lives of the passengers on the Illinois Central’s Cannonball. The wreck of the Southern Old 97 was caused by a combination of speed, a steep three-mile grade, and a curved trestle. These events are remembered today because of the songs that have survived long after the terrible events.
Another common theme in train songs is that of the departing lover. Of course, trains didn’t bring about the jilted lover or the spouse leaving home for greener pastures. That theme has probably been sung as long as people have been singing, but the train, like the ships before them and the buses after, provided a means of transportation that carried a loved one quickly out of sight to far off places.
J. E. Mainer and his brother Wade grew up in the rural mountains of western North Carolina. The train carried lots of their friends and kin off to the false promise of a better life in the textile mills. J. E. and Wade would make the trip themselves one day in search of a steady income.
Searching through the music of J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers and Wade Mainer, I found a couple of songs that cover all of these themes. Songs of mountains, an abandoned lover, and gruesome death.