"The Wreck of the Old 97"

Old 97 main page | song & audio | newspaper clippings

No ballad composition has touched more Americans than the song describing the wreck of mail train No.97. "Old 97," which consisted of four cars and locomotive No.1102, crashed on September 27, 1903. Running behind schedule, Engineer Joseph A. Broady was trying to make up time as his train approached Danville down a three-mile grade. He realized he did not have enough air pressure to slow the train for an upcoming curved trestle, and in vain he reversed the engine to lock the wheels. "Old 97" vaulted off the trestle, and 11 people were killed. Photographs taken from above the scene ran in newspapers across the country.

Train wrecks occurred relatively frequently at the time, and it was the ballad which sustained this accident's national fame. "The Wreck of the Old 97" was initially recorded commercially by Virginia musicians G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, but when it was released by light-opera singer Vernon Dalhart, it became the first million-selling record in the United States.

"The Wreck of the Old 97" also produced the first major lawsuit involving copyright. In 1933 the courts ruled against the RCA Victor Company, stating that David G. George, a Pittsylvania telegraph operator who was at the accident scene, was the song's original author. George was awarded $65,000 on sales of five million records. RCA Victor appealed and tied up the case in court for so long that George never collected his award. In a technique common to the folksong tradition, George composed the ballad by adding new lyrics to the altered tune of an older song.

Old 97 main page | song & audio | newspaper clippings

Deathly Lyrics:
Songs of Virginia Tragedies

Introduction

Audio Credits

Allens

Breeding Mill

Caty Sage

Derby

Dewey Lee

Flood

Freeda Bolt

Great Kanawha

Kent Steffie

Mollie Tynes

Old 97

Poor Goins

Roanoke Riot

Rye Cove

Talt Hall

Vance Song

Wreck of the 1256