John Luther “Casey” Jones was born on 14 March 1864 in southwestern Missouri. He was the son of Frank F. Jones, a schoolteacher, and Anna Nolen Jones. When he was thirteen he and his family moved to Cayce, Kentucky, the town that gave him his nickname. In 1886 he married Janie Brady of Jackson, Tennessee, and they went on to have three children. From 1890 to 1899, he worked as an engineer for the Illinois Central on a fast freight run from Jackson, Tennessee, to Water Valley, Mississippi.
As was the custom among engineers of his day, Jones made his own train whistle. His had a distinctive sound, resembling the call of the whippoorwill, an unmistakable signature to every hearing person along his route. Some black Mississippians who listened as Jones and his fellow engineers raced their engines past their homes incorporated the sound of the train whistle into blues harmonica playing, often as a counterpoint, just as the rhythm of the pistons driving the wheels of the locomotive was one of the underpinnings of blues guitar.
Jones built a reputation as the Illinois Central’s fastest engineer, a specialist in bringing overdue freights in on time. In 1900 he became engineer on the passenger train popularly known as the Cannonball, which ran between Canton and Memphis on the New Orleans–Chicago route. An Illinois Central engineer could receive no more prestigious assignment.
On 29 April 1900, just north of Vaughan, Mississippi, Jones allegedly failed to heed a flagman’s lantern signal. The Cannonball rounded the next curve at seventy miles an hour. In front of him, too close to avoid a collision, were the rear four cars of a freight train that had been unable to pull completely onto a side track. Jones applied the emergency brake. He stayed with the Cannonball up to the moment of collision, although he might have had time to jump. His body was found in the wreckage of his cab, but all of his passengers and crew survived. He went to his grave with a perfect record, never having lost a single passenger or railroad employee in his charge. His widow, represented by Earl Brewer, future governor of Mississippi, received a $2,650 settlement from the Illinois Central.
Jones’s heroic death and the often inaccurate songs it inspired have made him one of the major figures in Mississippian and American folklore. Wallace Saunders, a black engine wiper at the Canton roundhouse who cleaned up the Cannonball’s locomotive after the wreck, wrote the first song about Jones, which was later recorded under the supervision of noted folk music collector Alan Lomax. Two vaudevillians, T. Lawrence Siebert and Eddie Newton, composed the best-known song about Casey Jones, containing the refrain “Casey Jones was a brave engineer.” This version portrayed Jones, who avoided saloons and was a faithful husband, as a “rounder”—a hard-drinking womanizer. In 1938 his widow composed and published “Casey Jones, My Husband” as a rejoinder.
In 1912 fellow folk legend Joe Hill published “Casey Jones, the Union Scab,” in which the engineer operated his train while his fellow railroad workers were on strike. The song ended with Casey thrown into hell for scabbing on the angels. In 1970 rock band the Grateful Dead released “Casey Jones” by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, a version that described Jones as “driving that train, high on cocaine.”
- Carleton Jonathan Corliss, Main Line of Mid-America: The Story of The Illinois Central (1950)
- Fred J. Lee, Casey Jones: Epic of the American Railroad (1940)
- Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America (1960)
- James Alan McPherson and Miller Williams, Railroad, Trains, and Train People in American Culture (1976)
- B. W. Overall, The Story of Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer (1956)
- Graham Seal, Encyclopedia of Folk Heroes (2001)