Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Troublin' Switch (Ben Dewberry's Final Run)



The Old 97, a Southern Railway train enroute to Spencer, North Carolina, derailed at Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia, 27 September 1903, killing eleven: photographer unknown (image by Liesel, 2006)

Ben Dewberry was a brave engineer
He told his fireman don't you ever fear
All I want is the water and coal
Put your head out the window, watch the drivers roll
Watch the drivers roll -- watch the drivers roll
Put your head out the window; watch the drivers roll.

Ben Dewberry said before he died
Two more roads that he wanted to ride
His fireman asked him what could they be
Said the old Northeastern and the A and B
The A and B -- he said the A and B
It's the old Northeastern and the A and B.

On the fatal morning it began to rain
Around the curve come a passenger train
Ben Dewberry was the engineer
With the throttle wide open and without any fear
He didn't have no fear -- he didn't have no fear
He had her runnin' wide open without any fear.

Ben looked at his watch -- shook his head
We may make Atlanta but we'll all be dead
The train was flyin' by the troublin' switch
Without any warning then she took the ditch
Yea! she went in the ditch -- well, she took the ditch
Without any warning -- then she took the ditch.

The big locomotive leaped from the rail
Ben never lived to tell that awful tale
His life was ended and his work was done
When Ben Dewberry made his final run
He made his final run -- he made his final run
When Ben Dewberry made his final run.

Ben Dewberry's Final Run: Rev. Andrew Jenkins (aka Blind Andy or Blind Andrew Jenkins), n.d., recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, 1927

File:Southern RR Locomotive LOC npcc 32807.jpg

Southern Railway Crescent Locomotive (Ps-4 class, 4-6-2): photographer unknown, n.d. (National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress)

Benjamin Franklin Dewberry was the engineer on northbound Southern Railway passenger train #38 out of Atlanta on August 23, 1908. Near Buford, Georgia a boy who wanted to see a train wreck threw a switch. This was the "troublin' switch" that caused the derailment in which the locomotive of train #38 jumped the tracks and Dewberry and his fireman, Mayson Wadkins, were killed.


TC said...

Ben Dewberry's Final Run (Jimmie Rodgers)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Great rendition by Jimmie Rodgers, of such a sorrowful event. The Reverend's versifying is a great example of economy and precise use of repetition:

His fireman asked him what could they be
Said the old Northeastern and the A and B
The A and B - he said the A and B
It's the old Northeastern and the A and B.

Has a Leadbelly feel to it ... or I should say, Leadbelly certainly would have appreciated it.

Thanks, Tom.


TC said...

Don, Glad you like Jimmie's rendition. This is basic American roots music at its best. In the ballad and blues traditions the stories of the peoples are recollected.

Mississippi John Hurt, who came from the same neighborhood, acknowledged he picked up a lot from Jimmie.

(And you're right, one can hear an echo of Leadbelly in there too; though it probably wouldn't be easy to say who's echoing whom.)

And yes, Andrew Jenkins' construction of the lyric, not a word too many or too few, every word and line in the right place.

Repetition, pattern recognition, incremental accumulation and variation, the soul of sung storytelling down through the ages...

Anonymous said...

The beauty, power, subtlety and "cool" of this is really overpowering. It's everything about it -- the lyrics, music, performance and, I think, trains, which are so great, and seem both secure and adventurous at the same time. But things happen. It is, of course, incredibly chilling and entirely believable to read about a kid who wanted to see a train wreck. When I worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, the scariest part of it was occasionally dealing with arsonists, who I think had similar mindsets. Once as a teenager, riding the Long Island Railroad, someone threw a rock at the train while it was passing Forest Hills on the way into Manhattan and the window shattered all over me. It was terrifying, obviously, but no harm (except to the window) was done, and those being different days, no one was sued. This brings that back, actually. I love the phrase "troubin' switch".

TC said...

Curtis, So glad you liked this. You'll perhaps recall the earlier recollections re. Penny on the Tracks, about the "harmless" youthful pranks involving trains. It is apparently a true story about the boy who threw that switch in Georgia, by the way.

Jimmie Rodgers' performance feels heartfelt. Contracting t.b. terminated his railroading career while he was still in his twenties, and the same disease killed him at 35. So one imagines him having a premonitory sense of the reality of fatality.

By the way, I think much of the "cool" of the post may derive from the great muted majesty of the images of Richard Steinheimer, in my view the greatest train photographer ever. I started loving his photos in Trains magazine about the time I started loving trains (1948 or so), and maybe that's not completely a coincidence.

Jeff said...

News reports have it an 11 year old boy placed a bolt on the track at the insistence of a 20 year old who claimed he had wrecked several trains this way. Great poetry just the same!