The song tells the story of train engineer Cassey Jones, who stayed on his locomotive, to try to stop the train from running into another, while his fireman jumps to safety.
The song not only preserved his memory but enhanced his legendary status.
The song was first sung by Jones friend Wallace Saunders, shortly after Jones death. The words were sung to the tune known as “Jimmie Jones”. Saunders often sung the song while cleaning the engines, however he never had his version copyrighted, so it is impossible to know the exact words he sang.
“In the words of Casey’swife: “Wallace’s admiration of Casey was little short of idolatry. He used to brag mightily about Mr. Jones even when Casey was only a freight engineer.”
The song was picked up by other railroaders who stopped in Canton, Mississippi and the song was soon passed along.
The song was appreciated so much by Illinois Central Engineer William Leighton that he told his brothers, who were vaudeville performers, about the song. The brothers added a chorus and sung it around the country.
The Leighton brothers did not copyright the song and the only payment Saunders is recorded as receiving for the song was a bottle of gin.
The song was finally published and sold in 1909, with “T. Lawrence Seibert credited with the lyrics and Eddie Newton with the music”. The cover sheet claimed the song was the “Greatest Comedy Hit In Years” and “The Only Comedy Railroad Song.”
It is believed there are more than forty versions of the song. Casey’s wife did not appreciate the changes in the lyrics when published, which makes her appear to be unfaithful to her husband.
“Casey Jones figures in many railroad songs, such as “Freight Train Boogie”, by the Delmore Brothers.”
“Poet Carl Sandburg called the song “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer” the “greatest ballad ever written”.”