“The Wreck of Old 97”

Author: disputed (tune by Henry Clay Work)
Earliest date: 1923 (recording, Henry Whitter); a 1922 variant form appears in Brown
Keywords: crash wreck train death derivative
Found in: US(Ap,MA,Ro,SE,So)


"Steve" Broady is told that, due to a mix-up in numbering, his train is "way behind time." He is driving as fast as he can to make up the time when, on a long downgrade, his brakes fail. The train goes off the track; Broady dies at the controls


Authorship claimed by, among others, David Graves George; the legal battles over the song were extended. Brown has extensive notes which summarize the situation well. If anyone deserves credit for the pop version, it is probably Henry Whitter, who took a seemingly-traditional version and worked it into the form of the Dalhart recording.

Cohen has even more extensive documentation on this process (summarizing several full-length monographs on the subject); he is surprisingly sympathetic to George (not claiming that he wrote the song but that he did make original contributions).

The song is, in any case, derivative. The tune is taken from Henry Clay Work's "The Ship that Never Returned," and "The Ship" gave rise to at least two train wreck songs: "The Train that Never Returned" and "The Rarden Wreck of 1893." I've seen both listed as the source for "Old 97" -- though neither looks much like the latter song in the Whitter rendition (which, to be sure, is much worn down from texts Cohen regards as earlier sources).

I would note, though, that several of Brown's texts (including "D" from 1922) fall between "Train" and "Old 97." - RBW

Historical references

Same tune

Cross references



  1. Laws G2, "The Wreck of Old 97"
  2. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 197-226, "The Wreck of the Old 97" (6 texts plus excerpts, 1 tune, plus a sheet music cover and sundry excerpts from related songs including a text of "The Ship That Never Returned)
  3. Randolph 683, "The Wreck of the Southern Old 97" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 449-451, "The Wreck of the Southern Old 97" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 683)
  5. BrownII 217, "The Wreck of the Old 97" (6 field texts plus 3 more in the headnotes)
  6. JHCoxIIB, #2A-B, pp. 118-121, "The Wreck of the Southern Ninety-Seven," "The Wreck of the Old 97" (2 texts, 2 tunes; both appear from their texts to have been learned from the Dalhart recording)
  7. Cambiaire, p. 97, "The Wreck of Old Ninety-Seven" (1 text, another version probably derived from Dalhart)
  8. MHenry-Appalachians, pp. 79-80, "Old Ninety-Seven" (1 text, with a little bit of "The Train That Never Returned" at the end)
  9. Friedman, p. 318, "The Wreck of the Old 97" (1 text)
  10. Botkin-RailFolklr, p. 449, "The Wreck of the Old 97" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Darling-NAS, pp. 214-215, "The Wreck of the Old 97" (1 text plus "The Rarden Wreck of 1893")
  12. Silber-FSWB, p. 104 "The Wreck Of The Old 97" (1 text)
  13. DT 634, WRECK97*
  14. Roud #777
  15. BI, LG02