I think I first heard this on a Pete Seeger record, but it could have been Cisco or any number of other people. Everybody knew it and sang it, because it was the first million-selling country hit, recorded by Vernon Dalhart for Victor records in 1924, and then for nine other labels in less than a year. The actual wreck happened on September 27th, 1903, and if you want to know more about it there’s a good article here.
Dalhart was an all-around professional record singer, based in New York and doing classical and pop as well as what was then called “hillbilly” music. He was a Texan originally, born Marion Try Slaughter–not a he-man name by modern standards, but John Wayne was also a Marion–and according to the ever-reliable Tony Russell, Victor’s Ralph Peer described him as “a professional substitute for a real hillbilly.” Hence I cannot help but feel a degree of kinship. Peer also said “He had the peculiar ability to adapt hillbilly music to suit the taste of the non-hillbilly population,” which potentially makes him the grandfather of Seeger, Dylan, and their myriad fellow travelers.
Speaking of which, I cannot sing this song without being reminded of the parody Roy Berkeley wrote, published by Dave Van Ronk and Dick Ellington in The Bosses Songbook around 1958 or ’59. Subtitled “Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent,” The Bosses Songbook was a small anarcho-Trostkyist publication mocking the Communist and Popular Front folksingers (to my amazement, the 1959 second edition is online), and included “Ballad of a Party Folksinger,” which began:
They gave him his orders at Party headquarters
Saying, “Pete, you’re way behind the times.
This is not ’38, it is 1957,
There’s a change in that old Party line.
Van Ronk’s generation of New York folkies had a kind of Oedipal relationship to the Seeger generation — they were deeply indebted to Pete and Woody and Josh and Lead Belly and Alan Lomax, but also trying to make their own way, not only musically but politically and culturally. Part of that was a quest for “authenticity,” meaning that they were trying to sing and play like the real folks, not like all their peers who were learning folk music at lefty summer camps and singing “Wreck of the Old 97.”
I was lucky enough to come along after those battles had been fought, with access to all the great old rural music that got reissued by the purists in the 1950s and 1960s, but without a chip on my shoulder about Pete Seeger or Josh White. And then I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Van Ronk, who appreciated the fact that — even though I’d come to him for blues — I had grown up on Pete’s music and knew songs like this. Not that he would have been caught dead singing this, but he felt that folksingers should know the canon.