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The Wabash Cannonball

There are few things that carry the allure of the railroad train. Stories on the rail summon visions of romance, adventure, action and history. To appreciate the evolution of the train is essential in knowing who we are. Who America is.

The Wabash Cannonball

It was unusual, but only made sense then, that a rail line would decide to rename a train after a popular song. The iconic tune, The Wabash Cannonball is an American folk song that describes the scenic beauty and predicaments of the Wabash Cannonball Express as it travels on the Great Rock Island Train route.

First recorded in 1929 by the Carter Family, the song was not released until 1932. Roy Acuff, with arguably the most successful release in 1936 has one of the fewer than 40 all-time singles to have sold 10 million copies. Riding the aftermath of that famous version, The Wabash Railroad renamed its daytime express run between Detroit and St. Louis as The Wabash Cannon Ball in 1949. Since then, the likes of artist from country to rock have recorded the tune including Hank Snow, Jerry Reed, Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, Woody Guthrie and more.

Dizzy Dean, a colorful NBA Hall of Fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and other teams often sang verses of the song while broadcasting the Major League Baseball game of the week during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The Charlatans recorded a psychedelic hard rock version of the track in 1969. Doc Watson, bluegrass guitarist made a rhapsodic version in 1982 and reissued on CD in 1990.

The song has also been and continues to be, used in performances of collegiate sports. It is the second fight song for Kansas State University. Stephen F. Austin University has their Twirl-O-Jacks preform with the song at the beginning of each football game. The band also plays excerpts of the song during various other sporting events. The Wabash Cannonball is a signature song for by both Indiana State University Marching Sycamores and the Purdue All American Marching Band. ISU and Purdue campuses are adjacent to the mighty Wabash River.

Years ago when the director of the Texas Longhorn Band ask then coach Darrell K. Royal what music he would like to hear, he requested more country music, namely The Wabash Cannonball. This began a tradition which still is honored today. The Texas Longhorn Band performs The Wabash Cannonball at the beginning of each fourth quarter during football season.

Named to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 tunes that shaped Rock and Roll, The Wabash Cannonball is the oldest song on the list. Most often, the song is categorized as rock-a-billy which is a blending of folk music and early rock and roll.

The origin of the name is best explained as an idea whispered among freight traveling vagrants. They imagined a mythical train called the Wabash Cannonball which was the death coach appearing at a hobo’s demise to carry the soul to his reward. Another folk legend tells of a train run my Paul Bunyan’s brother who traveled so fast it left the earth for outer space. Seasoned rail ridders latched on to this folk legend deeming the mythical line to be The Wabash Cannonball and proclaiming ever station in America has heard the whistle of that bigger than life train


Now listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar,

As she dashes thro’ the woodland, and speeds along the shore,

She’s mighty tall and handsome

And known quite well by all,

She’s the combination called.

The Wabash Cannonball.

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