A gen-u-ine folk musical mystery!

This started out as a post on a bbs, here’s the original post, but it’s moved on from there, so don’t stop reading.

OK, somebody into American music, explain this to me. What the fuck is up with
everybody’s obsession with The Wabash Cannonball? I’m sorry but it’s just not
a good song. It basically amounts to “look pa, a train! She sure is pertty
huh?” Plus a mention of Daddy Claxton, perhaps the stupidest name ever
invented by man. It doesn’t even make train sounds for fuck’s sake! That’s
half the fun of doing train songs.

Bukka White has a couple, nice slide work to mimic whistles and brakes and
switches and such. The train and harmonica connection is so ubiquitous there’s
no need to comment on it. Hell even Hank Williams hints at a whistle very
effectively with jodel. But the Wabash Cannonball does none of this. It’s
just some boring dipshit song about, we’ve got this here train see? And it
goes all over the place, all across the country! And Daddy Claxton’s connected
with it somehow. And apparently people come down to the station just to watch
it pull in so they can comment on how girls from Tennessee just arrived on it.

That’s it. Boooooriiiing! But every other American folk record feels the need
to have a version of this song. It’s almost as bad as Cindy! At least you can
make fun of Cindy though, I mean seriously, some versions have “she’s so sweet
the honeybees swarm around her mouth”. Umm … yeah, get along home Cindy,
because you’re damn creepy! There’s no way in hell I’m gonna kiss you, I’ll
probably get stung to death by the damn bees flying around your mouth!

I like a hell of a lot more American music than I everthought I would, but
really, somebody explain Wabash Cannonball to me? I just don’t get the appeal.
Hell, learn a good song like Freighttrain, it’s not too hard. So I don’t
excuse it on the grouns that Wabash is an easy song and everybody started out
on that one and they just have this weird attachment to it. If it just showed
up a few times that’d be one thing. But I can probably find a dozen versions
without even trying. Damn it, now I’m going to have to go look it up on
Wikipedia to see what it says about it too.

I have since looked it up on Wikipedia. Hey guess what? The damn train never even existed! That’s just great, what we didn’t have enough actual trains in America to sing about, we had to make one up? I don’t buy the hobo death train theory either, sorry Utah Phillips. Cool as that theory is, the song clearly has no connection to it whatsoever, with the possible exception of the Carter Family.

That brings us to the Carter family. Yes, I own their version, I have all their original recordings. It’s the best version I’ve heard, no disrespect to Doc Watson Etc. they have “Daddy Cleaton” instead of “Daddy Claxton”, thankfully, and they mention that he’ll be “carried back to victory on the Wabash Cannonball”, there’s the possible hobo death train connection. We’ve gotten rid of “Daddy Claxton”, but really, “Daddy Cleaton” isn’t a whole lot better, and anybody with “Daddy” in their name should probably just be suspect, by definition. Please note, this excludes “Sweet Papa Stovepipe”, because seriously, any dude would want to rock a name that cool.

Now, while their version is fine and all, I’m not sure this says much for the song itself. They could, to use a cliche, have sung the phonebook and made it interesting. That’s not because they were the greatest singers, but they just would have done some interesting old timy stuff with it, probably inserting some rambling anecdote when they came to Ma Patchett, about how her son Bill bought that pig one time, and that pig didn’t do nothin’ but chew up Ma Patchett’s roses, and … Plus, their phonebook would have been from the 20s or 30s, which means it would totally have those funky letter-based telephone numbers. So they’d sound like some sort of crazed robot to our jaded, modern sensibilities.

So we’re still kind of stuck with, “gosh it sure is a neat train, huh pa?” Except you never would have heard that,because there was no such train. The hobo death train or space train mythology doesn’t really seem to be substantiated by anything, which is unfortunate because we need a hobo death train AND a hobo space train, though to be fair, I haven’t really looked into it much. It’s certainly not substantiated by the song itself, however. So I still want somebody to explain this to me, because I’m still totally missing the appeal of this song.

Yep, it’s a train alright. And it sure does seem to go a fair number of places. It’s got somebody named Daddy or Danny connected with it. Aaaaand, that’s about it. Wikipedia tells me a ton of college marching bands use it, big deal. There are way more interesting train songs in the world. I’m just completely baffled by it.

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