Last week we covered a classic rock and roll song that was covered in a bluegrass style. This week, we’re going to cover a classic bluegrass song that’s been covered by rock musicians, and even has its own place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
The Wabash Cannonball is a classic folk song, dating all the way back to the early days of cross-country railroad travel in the US. For the first time, it was possible to travel across the whole country in a matter of days, and, after the end of the Civil War, people were taking advantage of these new possibilities. The whole nation was transfixed, and railroads took on a legendary status that was reflected in the songs and stories of the day.
In 1882, J.A. Roff published the first version of the Wabash Cannonball, then called the Great Rock-Island Route. The subject of the song was the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad, a Midwestern railroad once represented in court by Abraham Lincoln. The song was somewhat popular, but it wasn’t until the song was rewritten as the Wabash Cannonball by William Kindt in 1904 that it really “picked up steam” (get it?).
While the Great Rock-Island Route celebrated a real railroad, the Wabash Cannonball was about a tall tale. Hobos, who were migratory workers who traveled across the country looking for jobs (as opposed to bums or tramps, who didn’t work), developed their own legends and myths to pass the time, often told by song; the song Big Rock Candy Mountain is another hobo legend song, for example. In hobo legend, the Wabash Cannonball, named after the real Wabash Railroad, was a mythical train that carried the spirits of traveling hobos on to their eternal reward in the next life. The Cannonball was said to be the fastest and largest train in the world, with over 700 cars traveling so fast that it would arrive at its destination an hour before it left. It eventually traveled so fast that it left the Earth and traveled through outer space, where it’s said it’s still traveling today!
The first recorded version of the Wabash Cannonball was by the Carter Family in 1929, and the most popular version was by Roy Acuff in 1936; many versions still use this bluegrass style. However, it’s been covered hundreds, if not thousands, of times, in just about every style imaginable; it’s been the unofficial fight song of Kansas State University since the late 1960s, when its sheet music was the only piece saved from a large fire in the music department, and their “rival” band, the University of Texas Longhorn Band, plays it at the beginning of the 4th quarter at all its football games. It’s been rewritten to celebrate the popularity of the American long-haul trucker and the jukebox (a 1952 version by Bill Haley and the Comets was one of the first rockabilly songs). Tennessee Ernie Ford even performed it on two episodes of I Love Lucy. It’s even in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as the oldest song on the list of “Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”.
Still, it’s best known as a bluegrass song, and it can be heard at bluegrass jams and pickin’s all across Appalachia. If you see a bluegrass group asking for requests, ask to hear their version of it; odds are, they’ll know the song backward and forwards. Here’s the 1947 version by Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys:
Do you have a favorite version of the Wabash Cannonball? Let us know in the comments!