"Wabash Cannonball" is a folk, country and rock n' roll song that is almost 150 years old, if not older. It is the oldest song in the Rock n Roll Fall of Fame's list of songs that shaped rock music. It was based on an early train song from the 1880s called "The Great Rock Island Route". The name Wabash Cannonball dates from 1904, and the oldest recordings of the song come from the 1920s. Just how old the song is, how many writes and rewrites it had, and what the song was about are lost to the murky depths of history. The oldest recordings are by The Carter Family, Roy Acuff and Hugh Cross. Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bing Crosby and Utah Phillips and many others have recorded versions of it. I found the song on a 45 RPM phonograph the other week. I listen to it in the morning when I am working out.
This is a train song. This might be the train song. It describes a mythical train, the Wabash Cannonball, that travels around the country. The train is sometimes described in anthropomorphic terms. There is a dead man named Daddy Clayton. This song is a jingle of atavistic memories. And it also has a good beat, reminiscent of a train, of course. What is this mythic train? Where is it going? Nobody knows.
Also, the song seems to preserve an obvious truth in it---it talks about the "Eastern States" and mentions Missouri and Minnesota as being Eastern states...an obvious truth that has somehow been lost.