Saturday, January 14, 2012

Vernon Dalhart - The Wreck of the Old 97

(Image source)
What does a New York City opera singer have to do with country music?  Don't judge a book by its cover.

You see, Vernon Dalhart was originally from Texas.  That wasn't even his real name - when he first performed in a production of Puccini, he made up a pseudonym to be listed in the program.  Vernon and Dalhart were the Texas towns where he rode on cattle drives in the 1890s.  He may have been singing in H.M.S. Pinafore, but he came by his cowboy chops honestly.

By the nineteen teens, phonographs were beginning to take off, and he auditioned in front of no less a figure as Thomas Edison.  By 1920, he was recording records - 12 inch 78-rpm disks with a single song on each side).  He recorded everything, from opera to Irish songs to Negro spirituals.  But everything changed in 1924.

The wreck of the Old 97 was a popular song about the 1903 wreck of a fast mail train.  It was country, not the other styles he sang, but since Dalhart recorded everything, he did this one too. 

This record sold seven million copies.  It was the best selling record until the 1950s, other than Christmas songs. 

But the music business was a tough one even then, and Dalhart's singing career was over by 1940.  He worked odd jobs including security guard during the War, dieing of a heart attack in 1948. 

The Wreck of The Old 97 (songwriters: G.B. Grayson, Henry Whitter)
Well they gave him his orders at Monroe Virginia

sayin' Steve you're way behind time
This is not 38 this is old 97
you must put her into Spencer on time

Then he turned around and said to his black greasy fireman
shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
watch old 97 roll

But it's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
With a line on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes
see what a jump he made

He was goin' down the grade makin' 90 miles an hour
his whistle broke into a scream
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
A scalded to death by the steam

Then the telegram come to Washington station
and this is how it read
Oh that brave engineer that run old 97
he's a layin' in old Danville dead

So now all you ladies you better take a warnin'
from this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true lovin' husband
He may leave you and never return
Vernon Dalhart was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1981.

1 comment:

Murphy's Law said...

I've loved this one ever since I heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs do it on an old album that my father had. Today I have several versions in my MP3 music collection. Never tire of it.