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Book Review 206: Scalded to Death by the Steam

August 8, 2011 - Harry Eagar
SCALDED TO DEATH BY THE STEAM: The True Stories of Railroad Disasters and the Songs that Were Written about Them, by Katie Letcher Lyle. 213 pages, illustrated. Algonquin paperback, $12.95

“Scalded to Death by the Steam” stands as a permanent rebuke to those rightwingers who say that government regulation is unneeded, that the free market will always find the best, most efficient way to do things.

What “Scalded” shows is that the free market will do whatever earns the quickest profits, and if it proves more profitable for you, the customer, to die (as it often will), then the market will arrange to kill you.

That, of course, was not in Katie Lyle's mind when she visited the old-time train song composers and toiled in the newspaper archives to learn the stories behind the songs. The saga of Casey Jones is not here, but pride of place goes to “The Wreck of the Old 97.”

Although trains wrecked everywhere, most of the railroad ballads originated in the southern mountains, where a tradition of lugubrious and tendentious home-grown songwriting had been brought over from Scotland. There actually were more wrecks in the Northeast, but to listen to the ballads, you'd think they were all in Virginia, North Carolina and West Virgina, most of them on the Chesapeake & Ohio and, it sometimes seems, mostly on the twisty section either side of Hinton, W. Va.

There were so many that a few C&O employees made a sort of sideline job of writing doggerel about the latest disaster.

Most of this verse is, Lyle admits, just about awful, but a lot of it is more or less veracious. The versifiers knew what they were talking about and, sometimes, the people who made the wrecks.

About 1890-1930 was the golden age of the tragic train ballad. The wreck of the old 97 happened near Danville. Va., in 1903, and except for the sinking of the Titanic was probably the disaster most sung about in the South when I was growing up. I first heard “Old 97” in a lubricious parody version about a bicycle wreck sometime in the 1950s. When 11-year-old boys sing dirty lyrics to your train song, you've moved into folksong territory, although 'The Wreck of the Old 97” had a known author. Several, in fact, who disputed the honor and royalties in the federal courts for a generation.

Many of the ballads are explicitly religious though not sectarian. The moral is simple and brainless: Remember to live right because you never know when Old 97, Old 85, The Sportsman, The Flyer Duquesne etc. will jump the tracks.

Given the prophetic predilections of the countryside's religion, the true stories of the fatalities have a satisfyingly high percentage of prefigurings. Often and again, a man who escaped one day was scalded to death by the steam on another.

To anyone who ever heard the lonesome whistle moanin' low, or who delights in cheap sentiment sincerely wrapped, “Scalded to Death by the Steam” will be a delight. And if you can plink out the notes on a pianny, the notes are here, too, along with numerous gruesome photographs.

Most surprising fact I learned: Old 97 was almost brand new when she wrecked.


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