The Old 97 wrecked near Danville Virginia in 1903. It's a true story, not fictional.
The Wreck of the Old 97 tells the true story of a horrific train wreck which occurred on a Southern Railway train which ran from Washington DC to Atlanta, Georgia. On September 27, 1903 the Old 97 jumped the track near Danville Virginia while en route from Monroe to Spencer, North Carolina. The engineer, Joe Broady (usually called “Pete” or “Steve” in the song) was killed along with ten others, and another seven injured. The train was hauling mail for the US Post Office and had the reputation for being always on time. When the train fell behind by an hour in Monro, Broady increased speed in order to compensate (probably under company orders). As a result the train was travelling too fast and jumped the track.
So why would anyone like a song about a terrible accident which caused so many deaths and injuries? Especially a song that has such a bright melody? That's difficult to say, but our tradition is to record events that effect our lives, both happy and sad. It's a way to create a memorial for the people who suffered and died, and to pass their memory on to future generations.
I first heard this song on an LP from the 1960s that my Dad had, which featured Mac Wiseman, a terrific vocalist. My Dad and I were lucky enough to hear Mac perform this song and others at festivals in southern Ohio in the early 1980s. Perhaps Flatt and Scruggs made the most famous version, however, so WOTO97 is known as a bluegrass song. But in reality the song was composed in the 1920s, thus predating the Bluegrass Era, with the authorship being claimed by several persons. The Wikipedia article identifies Charles Noell as the most likely original author, though the 1924 copyright was assigned to F. Wallace Rega.
As far as I can determine, the first known recorded version was in 1923 by Henry Whittier and G. B. Grayson ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5b8fUJT_ZNA ), followed shortly by Vernon Dalhart in 1924 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5b8fUJT_ZNA ). Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers had a version in 1927. Other versions of note come from the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, Pete, Seeger and others. I’m partial to a version by Norman Blake, which contains two extra introductory verses (I suppose Norman wrote these, as I haven’t heard them on any of the earlier versions). Below is a really nice version based on Norman's.
This is really nice version based on the Norman Blake version.
You might like this Youtube video, which slows down the song a tad, and shows the left hand to play this in the key of C, Norman Blake style (hint: intermediate guitar players will probably go mad if they try to play exactly like Norman Blake. A better plan is to pick up some of his basic crosspicks style and evolve from there).
Key of G
G - - - C - - - G - - - D - - -
G - - - C - - - G - D - G - - -
Key of C
C - - - F - - - C - - - G - - -
C - - - F - - - C - G - C - - -
(Norman Blake verses)
I was standing on a mountain one Sunday morning,
Watching the smoke below.
It was coming from a tall thin smokestack,
Down on the Southern Railroad.
97 was the fastest train that
The South had ever seen,
But it ran so fast that Sunday morning,
The death toll numbered fourteen.
(Everybody else's verses)
Well they gave him his orders at Monroe Virginia
Sayin' Steve you're way behind time
This is not 38, but it's old 97
You must put her into Spencer on time
Then he turned and said to his black greasy fireman
Just shovel in a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
You will see old 97 roll
Well it's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
On a line with 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
When his whistle began to scream
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
And scalded to death by the steam
Then the telegram came to Washington station
and this is what it said,
Oh that brave engineer that ran old 97
Is laying in Danville dead.
So now all you ladies fair, please heed my warning
from this time live and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband
He may leave you and never return.