The Wabash Cannon Ball Tinwhistle Tablature
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This is probably one of the earliest genuine American hobo ballads.  It was recorded many times in the thirties and forties by various hillbilly singers.  "Tennessee" Ernie Ford sung parts of it on an episode of "I Love Lucy." 

The "Wabash Cannonball" was a mythical train of Bunyanesque stature.  It was bigger and faster than any real train and it visited every station in the world.

Ironically, some recordings omit any references to hoboes – probably to avoid offending the sensibilities of those who could afford to buy the recordings.  It's been a while since I've seen the episode of "I Love Lucy" mentioned above, but if I remember right there was never any mention of hoboes in the portion that appeared on the show.  Sanitized, the song lost much of it's meaning and charm. 

Today most people have probably heard the song but few recognize the whimsical mythology with which it's laden.  To understand the song you must realize that it comes from a time when railroads were the mode of transportation; there were no government funded social programs to feed the poor; and thousands of homeless men were riding to and fro across the country chasing rumors of a job just over the next mountain or running away from the law, in-laws, responsibility, or themselves.  Some lived for their next bowl of beans and others lived for another swallow of whiskey.  They came from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds and ranged in age from barely in their teens to one step from the grave.  All were broke, hungry, and desparate – and hopping a train to the next town didn't cost nothin' except maybe your life.  From this discouraging environment came a unique combination of whimsy, irony, and satire as found in "The Wabash Cannon Ball" and "The Big Rock Candy Mountain."

Common variations:

  • Daddy Claxton or Danny Claxton instead of Boston Blackie.  Hoboes probably used the name of someone they knew.
  • "Victory" for "glory" in the last stanza.
  • "From the green ole' Smokey Mountains, To the south lands by the shore" as the second half of the first stanza.  I've seen one rather charming version on the web where someone misheard this as "To the queen of flowing mountains, To the southbell by the door."
  • In the first stanza I've chosen "She's the 'boes accomodation called the Wabash Cannon Ball."  This may be the rarest of several known variations of this line – but, I believe it is the most likely candidate as the original line.  If you consider the history of the song, the hobo jungles, that line is more reasonable than any of the others I've encountered.  It also clearly assigns a name to the subject of the song in the first stanza – a feature that is encountered very frequently in folk music.  Lomax transcribed this as "She's the 'boes accomodation on the Wabash Cannon Ball."  I believe that either he or the singer he was collecting the song from misheard "called" as "on."  It's easy to imagine that happening with a fast song and a hillbilly singer.  Syntactically, Lomax' version makes absolutely no sense as it is equivalent to saying, "my car is the steering wheel on my car."  Two other common variations are, "She's the regular combination on the WCB" and, "She's a modern combination called the WCB."  I suspect that those originated from the previously mentioned attempts to sanitize the song for public consumption.
  • "You're" or "we're" for "while" in the last line of the chorus.

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