Here we have “Casey Jones” – a painting done in 1939 by Edwin Fulwider. Fulwider was a Hoosier born in Bloomington Indiana in 1913.
Obviously the main feature here is trains, old timey steam trains. So continuing our little game of picking songs that match each art work, we need a song that mentions trains. There are a bunch of them. Trains represent a very romantic form of travel – partings at the station, the lonesome whistle in the night, the rhythmic clickety-clack on the rails. No wonder. What songs come to mind for you?
How about “Can’t You See” by The Marshall Tucker Band?
I gonna buy me a ticket now, as far as I can
Ain’t a-never comin’ back
Ride me a Southbound
All the way to Georgia now
Till the train run out of track
How about “Train Train” by Blackfoot.
Well, train, train, take me on out of this town
Train, train, Lord, take me on out of this town
Well, that woman I’m in love with, Lord, she’s Memphis bound
For me trains and the blues always go together and I’m a fan of blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. He has several songs with trains in them including this one: “Slow Train”. Maybe not the bluesiest of his train songs, but a good car driving song.
All right back to the painting. Although it was created almost 300 years after the last painting that we studied, Vannini’s “The Gathering of Manna”, the story here is still pretty much right there on the canvas.
What do we see? There are two old time steam trains traveling at night or early morning hence the deep blue colors and the shining headlamps. There’s a switch house overlooking the tracks with the word Vaughan on it. If we look closely we can see a small panic stricken figure in the switch house and another one leaping from the train on the right. Why are they freaking out? Because both trains are on the same track and headed for a head-on collision! The steam is flying, the whistles are shrieking, the wheels are screeching in an attempt to stop – will anyone survive?
It’s the classic Casey Jones story. Train engineer Jones, obsessed with speed, is flying through the night and meets his end when his train collides with another. This painting depicts a real event that happened only about 100 years ago – April 30th. 1900. Well, sort of. The artist has taken a few liberties with the scene.
Have you ever heard the Casey Jones story? Back when I was a kid Casey Jones was a folk hero / legendary type along the lines of lumber jack Paul Bunyan or John Henry the steel driving man. These days people are less likely to hear about them. The real story goes like this.
Casey Jones was a train engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad. Even before the fateful events of April 30th he was a pretty well known man in the area. He had a special musical way of blowing the train whistle that everyone along the line recognized. When they heard that sound late at night they knew Casey was passing through. He had a reputation for liking to go fast and to keep his train on time. He was also a bit of a hero for doing things like pulling children off the tracks just in the nick of time so they wouldn’t get run down by the trains. I guess back in the day kids tended to play around on the tracks a lot.
On this particular night Jones and his trusty fireman, Sim Webb were asked to drive a train from Memphis, TN to Canton, MS (about a 200 mile run) because the original crew called in sick. They left at 12:50am, well over an hour late, because of the switch in crews and they had to wait for a connecting train which was also late. This was the kind of challenge the punctual Jones loved. With a light train of only 6 passenger cars, a fast engine, and a good fireman in Webb, he figured on making a record setting run to arrive in Canton on time.
Jones and Webb flew over the tracks. At one point Jones told Webb, “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!” By the time they stopped at Goodman, MS for water, 163 miles into the trip, Jones was only 5 minutes behind schedule. With only 30-ish miles of good track to go, it was a sure thing he could make it on time.
This was 1900 – no radio, no cell phones, only telegraph communications. Jones could pick up messages at stops and see mute red and green lights posted along the tracks – that’s it. On his way Jones had to pass through Vaughan, MS., but he received telegraphed orders telling him that he had priority and that the tracks would be cleared for him.
Unknown to Jones at Vaughan there was “trouble on the line”. A train that workmen were trying to move off the main line and onto a siding was too long. They had to disconnect the caboose and the last few cars and move them out of the way with another engine. Unfortunately one of the cars burst an air line which locked its brakes on. None of the cars could be moved until the air line was fixed. While the repairs were being made, Jones and Webb came around a big sweeping left hand turn at 75 miles an hour.
Here’s where some controversy comes into the story. According to the official investigation after the accident done by the railroad company, Jones either missed or ignored 1. a workman by the tracks waving a red lantern, 2. burning red flares on the tracks, and 3. explosive “torpedoes” set on the tracks that make a very loud bang as the train passes over them. The railroad said the workmen at Vaughan had properly set up all these warnings well in advance of the stranded cars as per regulations. To his dying day Sim Webb swore that there were no warning signals and he and Jones knew nothing about the danger until he looked around the bend and saw the light on the back of the caboose. By then it was too late.
Webb yelled to Jones that there were cars on the track. Jones immediately went into action. He reversed the throttle, slammed on the brakes, and hit the whistle to warn the people at the station that he was coming in. He yelled to Sim to jump before impact – that’s him we see leaping from the train in the painting. Jones stayed at the controls and was able to slow the train from 75 miles an hour down to 35 when it hit.
The train smashed through the caboose reducing it to match sticks, then through a carload of hay, it blew apart a carload of corn, and finally hit a car filled with lumber before derailing and ramming into an embankment. No one in the station was injured. The passengers on Jones’ train only received minor bumps and bruises. Webb was knocked unconscious when he jumped from the speeding train, but recovered. Jones was dead when they pulled him from the wreckage. His willingness to stay with the engine and sacrifice his life to protect his passengers and the people at the station made him a folk legend.
Fulwider’s depiction wasn’t exactly as it happened, but pretty close and of course a head-on collision is more exciting than running into the back-end of a stalled train.
Now, normally I don’t like to talk about art genres – things like post-modern neo-classical abstract impressionism or whatever. Museum curators and art history majors like that kind of thing, but regular people like you and me don’t care. This time though I have to do it so we can make another story connection.
Fulwider painted in what’s known as the Regionalist style. His paintings are generally colorful depictions of mid-western rural American life. This style was kind of a reaction against all that crazy abstract stuff coming out of Europe and the East Coast. You might know one of the big names in Regionalism, Grant Wood. He created a famous painting called “American Gothic” that you may know. The one with the man and the woman standing in front of their house and the man is holding a pitchfork. They made a play on it during the opening for the old TV show, “Green Acres”, with Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor.
Another big name in Regionalism was James Steuart Curry who painted “Tragic Prelude”, a mural on the wall of the Kansas state capitol building. Does it look familiar to you? If you bought any rock albums in the 70s it might. It was used as the cover art for the prog rock band Kansas’ self-titled debut album in 1974. And as Homer Simpson tells us, “Everybody knows that rock and roll achieved perfection in 1974 – it’s a scientific fact.”
So there we have our second art work on our tour of finding the story in art. A beautiful painting full of action and suspense. Not quite telling the true story, but pretty close.
We’ve seen two paintings where the story is pretty easy to spot as it’s baked right into the canvas. Now it’s time to check out one that’s a bit trickier and some might even say there is no story at all. Let’s take a look at “Ariadne’s Afternoon” by Richard Serra painted in 1982.