Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: The last verse of “The Wabash Cannonball” is a tribute of sorts. It tells of a Daddy Claxton being remembered in the courts and carried home to victory on the Wabash Cannonball. Who was Daddy Claxton? What does he have to do with anything?
—Wayne Orr, Huntsville, AL

DEAR WAYNE: First, for those who are not familiar with “The Wabash Cannonball — one of the most famous train song of all time — let's review the entire verse in question:

“Here's to Daddy Claxton, may his name forever stand
Long to be remembered in the courts throughout the land
His earthly reign is over, and the curtains round him fall
We'll carry him home to victory on the Wabash Cannonball”

Slight variations in the lyrics can be found, depending on whose version is being heard. Some, for example, sing His earthly “race” is over, now the curtains round him fall. But this will do for our purpose.

“The Wabash Cannonball” first became a hit in 1938 for Roy Acuff (Vocalion 4466) — the follow-up to another of his best-known tunes, “The Great Speckle Bird.”

As originally written, with several additional verses, Daddy Claxton is the engineer of the Wabash Cannonball. Still, we know of no authenticated, real-life events involving anyone named Claxton and any train named Cannonball.

Coincidence or not, Roy Acuff's middle name is Claxton and some historians believe that is why the name is respectfully included in “The Wabash Cannonball.”

Those who disagree contend that a man named Claxton was a friend of the Acuff clan, and that is where Roy's middle name came from. If so, there would be no connection to the fictional use of the name in the song.

We now continue our ride on a cannonball of a different denomination:

DEAR JERRY: I remember briefly hearing a country tune sung by a baritone, who's name I don't recall, to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball,” but it's about a truck instead of a train.

It was actually quite well done and I should have taken note of the details at the time, but since I didn't I am counting on you to fill in the blanks.
—Trucker Dave, Tampa, Fla.

DEAR DAVE: I copy that. Your faith is well placed, I've got ya covered good buddy. The truck-drivin', gear-jamin' recordin' you heard is “Big Wheel Cannonball (Capitol 2780), a Top 30 C&W hit in 1970 for Dick Curless.

This is not the first time someone borrowed the infectious “Wabash Cannonball” melody, then added new lyrics.

In 1941, the Delmore Brothers crafted “The Gospel Cannonball” (Decca 5970), giving the tune a soul-saving slant. Then in 1951, Bill Haley paid tribute to the top tunes of the day in “The Juke Box Cannonball” (Holiday 113).

Those are just two examples, though others exist.

IZ ZAT SO? Ask just about any music historian who sang the original version of “The Wabash Cannonball,” and they'll likely answer quickly, “Roy Acuff.” Yet, technically speaking, they would be wrong.

Acuff is sure enough the artist credited on the label, and he did perform the tune on the Grand Ole Opry every week for over 50 years. However, he is not the vocalist on the original hit. One of Roy's band members, Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher is actually the singer. Besides doing some fiddlin' and a bit of backup work, Acuff's main contribution is supplying the train whistle sounds.


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