Songs with Earlier Histories Than the Hit Version

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Wabash Cannonball (or Wabash Cannon Ball)

First recorded by Hugh Cross (1929).
Also recorded by The Carter Family (1929, released 1932).
Hit version by Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseeans (1936).
Also performed by Woody Guthrie (1944).
Also recorded by Roy Acuff & His Smoky Mountain Boys (1947), Bill Haley (as “Jukebox Cannonball” 1952), Lonnie Donegan (as “Grand Coulee Dam” UK #6 1956).

From the wiki: “J.A. Roff’s 19th-century train song ‘The Great Rock Island Route’ was rewritten in 1904 by William Kindt as ‘Wabash Cannon Ball’, and though the famed Carter Family is sometimes cited as the first to record it (with A.B. Carter credited as composer), an arrangement by Hugh Cross & his guitar was put to wax more than seven months before theirs … and which was released three years prior to the release of the Carter Family recording.

“The artist most commonly associated with the song is Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseeans whose first recording of ‘Wabash Cannonball’ was made in 1936 and released in December 1938. Crazy Tennesseean member Sam ‘Dynamite’ Hatcher was the actual vocalist on the recording, but it was Acuff’s imitation of a train whistle, something he said he learned while working for the L & N Railroad, that made the recording so iconic. Acuff would himself record a vocal version of ‘Wabash Cannonball’ in 1947.

“Although there is no chart listing for the song in either 1936 or 1947, it has been estimated the recordings bearing Acuff’s name have since then sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, one of fewer than 40 songs to ever do so.

“Woody Guthrie’s association with ‘Wabash Cannonball’ is limited but he did perform the song live on BBC Radio from London in the midst of World War II. Guthrie was serving in the Merchant Marine, washing dishes on a Liberty Ship, on the troop ship Sea Porpoise which carried troops to the Normandy beach after D-Day in 1944. After the troops were sent ashore, the ship hit a mine but made its way back to England. While in London, he went to the offices of the BBC where he introduced himself as a member of ‘The Martins and the Coys’ and was given the opportunity to sing on the Children’s Hour. After a brief interview by the show compére, Guthrie was recorded singing two railroad songs accompanying himself on guitar: ‘Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘900 Miles’.

“Guthrie would adapt the ‘Cannonball’ melody for his song ‘Grand Coulee Dam’. UK skiffle king Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 recording of ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ peaked at #6 on the UK Singles chart. Bill Haley & the Saddleman recorded a novelty song in 1952 based on the ‘Cannonball’ melody: ‘Juke Box Cannon Ball’.

“There are many theories as to the origin of ‘The Wabash Cannonball’. Utah Phillips states that hobos imagined a mythical train called the ‘Wabash Cannonball’ which was a ‘death coach’ that appeared at the death of a hobo to carry his soul to its reward. Another story states that the song is based on a tall tale in which Cal S. Bunyan, Paul Bunyan’s brother, constructed a railroad known as the Ireland, Jerusalem, Australian & Southern Michigan Line. After two months of service, the 700-car train was traveling so fast that it arrived at its destination an hour before its departure. Finally, the train took off so fast that it rushed into outer space and where, for all that is known, it is still traveling.

“Although there are claims to the contrary, the only train listed on railroad timetables to actually bear the name was created in response to the song’s popularity, with the Wabash Railroad renaming its daytime express service between Detroit and St. Louis as the ‘Wabash Cannon Ball’ from 1949 until the line’s discontinuation during the formation of Amtrak in 1971.”

The Carter Family, “Wabash Cannonball” (1929):

Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseeans, “Wabash Cannon Ball” (1936):

Woody Guthrie, “Wabash Cannonball” & “900 Miles” live BBC Radio performances (1944):

Roy Acuff & His Smoky Mountain Boys, “Wabash Cannonball” (1947):

Bill Haley & the Saddlemen, “Juke Box Cannon Ball” (1952):

Lonnie Donegan, “Grand Coulee Dam” (1956):

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