Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Natural Born Eastmen Don't Have to Work...

Well, I don't think anyone read part 1 of this piece, regarding Furry Lewis and his version of the story of Casey Jones, but here is part 2 anyway. There may or may not be a part 3.

In the next verse, we finally meet Casey, but only indirectly. The train is preparing to leave the station:

When the conductor he holler “hello!”

Fire man he holler “all aboard!”

The people tell by the whistle’s moan

The man at the throttle was old Casey Jones

But this construction is in the historical present. Is this the final trip for Casey? Or any trip? The drama of meeting Casey is left to hang in the air, as “Old Casey Jones” is not repeated. Instead the narrator moans

Oh, on the Road Again

And stays silent through what would normally be the sixth and final line of the verse.

Then we turn abruptly to the narrator’s own life and perspective. It turns out that he is a bootlegger:

When I've sold my gin, I sold it straight

The Police run me to my woman's gate

His woman offers him her “folding bed.” This sounds generous enough, but the next verse seems to complicate the picture.

I’m gonna leave Memphis, to spread the news

That Memphis women don’t wear no shoes

The shoelessness of these women has a significance that is lost on me, but I like the image a lot. He goes on.

I got it written on the back of my shirt

I’m a natural born eastman and I don’t have to work.

I don’t have to work.

I’m a natural born eastman and don’t have to work.

You can search for quite awhile before coming up with an interpretation of this lyric that actually makes sense. The difficulty is the word “eastman” which is hard enough to make out (“easement” is one common mishearing, “easy” is another), but even more difficult to interpret. Although you can turn up evidence for what “eastman” meant to African Americans in the delta of that time, it is probably just as easy to gather it from context: an eastman is a man who lives off his woman’s income, maybe even a pimp. We should have guessed. But what does this shiftless narrator have to do with the mighty Casey? The next verse offers a clue:

When I woke up this morning at half past nine

I saw little Casey’s chillun on the doorstep crying

“Mama mama we can’t keep from crying

My daddy got killed on the Southern Line.”

That southern line

My daddy got killed on the southern line.

The narrator is able to bear witness to the human tragedy of Casey’s accident, and establish Casey as a family man (The real Casey’s children were between ages twelve and four at the time of the accident). In the midst of all his shiftlessness, the narrator is IN the story. In real life, Mrs. Jones wore black every day for the rest of her life, more than fifty years after the accident, and never remarried. In the ballads, however, she is sometimes portrayed as a pretty cool customer, in contrast to her grieving offspring:

She cried “Children Children, won’t you hold your breath

We’re gonna draw another check from your father’s death.

From your father’s death

We’re gonna draw another pension at your father’s death.

Other versions of the story even have her telling the kids that they have “another papa” on a different railroad line.

The perspective shifts again, this time back to Casey, and before the accident itself.

Now Mister Caseysaid, just before he died

There was two more roads that he would like to ride

Fireman asked Casey, "What road is he?"

"That’s the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.”

That Santa Fe…

The Southern Pacific and the Sante Fe

Casey’s fireman, Sim Webb, was the last man to see Casey alive, so that statement feels authentic. Casey had spent his whole career working on North-South railroad lines, and the Southern Pacific and Sante Fe presumably run East-West. But the thing from this verse that haunts me is the repetition of “Santa Fe.” “Santa Fe” means “holy spirit” in Spanish, and so the simple unfulfilled ambitions of a dedicated railroad man become freighted with spiritual portent. Underscoring this is that "Santa Fe" is rhymed with the odd pronoun "he" (which appears where we would, grammatically, have expected to hear "that.")

Now, “On the Road Again” is a late performance of Furry Lewis. A lot of verses from the earlier “Kassie Jones” are missing. The last two verses, however, are a startling departure—even in a song that has already pointed out the unusual customs of Memphis women regarding footwear. Here is the first.

Now you come all you men if you want to flirt

Here come a lady with a mini skirt

She got a half-yard ribbon wrapped around her leg

She step like she stepping on a scrambled egg

I’m on the Road again.

Step like she step on a scrambled egg.

I am not sure what a woman stepping on a scrambled egg looks like, but apparently it is highly alluring. But I am more intrigued by the re-emergence, for the first time since we met Casey Jones, of the narrators old cry of “on the road again.” Perhaps we are reminded too of the “rambling mind” of the second verse.

Then the narrator takes another sharp turn, before bidding us farewell:

If you wanna go to heaven when you D-I-E

Just put on a collar and a T-I-E

Is this meant to be a warning? Why the spelling? Do we really just need to dress nicely? Or is dressing up just shorthand for going to church and being “respectable”? The next two lines do not offer any clarification.

If you wanna scare a rabbit out of L-O-G

Just make a little stunt like a D-O-G.

Does that help? I don’t think it does. What are you going to do about it.

I’m on the Road Again.

And we’re done.


  1. Wonderful exegesis Tony.
    I wonder about the significance of the direction of East in Eastman: In Mississippi, east could be back East or it could be Africa.
    Also, the scrambled egg image certainly is evocative.
    As for being "on the Road again," that is a refrain I understand.

  2. Well, I read part I of this piece. I had been curious myself about this song after listening to Eleanor Ellis's masterful version of it on her first album and being befuddled but amused by it. Reading your blog I must confess I started chuckling out loud at work (and now my boss thinks that I think his SQL is comical).

  3. I have finally learned to play (a very approximate) version of Furry's version on the Ukelele. It just modulates between C and G. It would be cool to try it with a banjo, to get some of the effect of the drone.

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