That Long Black Train

On September 16, 1901 the funeral train of President William McKinley left Buffalo, NY at about 8:30 AM. The chief executive died three days before, lingering four days after being shot by an anarchist while shaking hands at a public reception September 9 at the Temple of Music at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. The President died less from the assassin’s bullet than a raging post-op infection which his doctors could not control.

The funeral train itself, black steel decked in black bunting, consisted of two locomotives. The first preceded the full train down the line by several minutes, blowing a long mournful whistle. The second locomotive pulled a baggage car, a saloon car, and five Pullman lounges. The first carried reporters; the second held members of McKinley’s cabinet; the third Pullman was given over to the party of the new president, Theodore Roosevelt; the fourth held McKinley’s family, and the last, a glassed-in observation car bore the presidential coffin, resting on a bed of flowers, in public view.

The journey south went through the western spur of New York State, down the Cumberland and Lehigh Valleys, through Harrisburg, PA and Baltimore, to arrive that evening in Washington, DC.

Besides ushering in Roosevelt’s Progressive administration, McKinley’s death is notable for our purposes for being one of the last times a great national event was told as news in song. The first version of the McKinley murder ballad, called Zolgotz, its title a vernacular reading of the killer’s last name, Czolgosz—properly pronounced Chol-gosh—hewed pretty closely to the details of the shooting. In 1948, Bascomb Lamar Lunsford performed it for a Library of Congress recording, playing a jerking banjo line and singing:

            Zolgotz, mean man/he shot McKinley/with a handchiff in his hand/in Buffalo, Buffalo.

            The pistol fired/and McKinley fall/Doc says McKinley/I can’t find that ball/in Buffalo, Buffalo.

            Seventeen coaches/all trimmed in black/took McKinley to the Graveyard/and never brought him back/to Buffalo, Buffalo.

Czolgosz had hidden his revolver under a handkerchief, and the first attending doctor’s unsuccessful search for the bullet, lodged somewhere in McKinley’s enormous lower body, induced the fatal sepsis. The extra ten coaches in the funeral train are presumably there for emphasis, or to fill out the metrical line.

Just as mass circulation newspapers, and the advent of Edison movie newsreels (the presentation of McKinley’s funeral ceremonies in Buffalo and Washington being among the first of their kind), closed the long era of news ballads, so did the spread of radio and movies in the mid 1920s bring an end the widespread practice of public, communal singing. But in 1901, at every station stop that long day, the funeral train was met by hundreds, in some places thousands of people singing hymns, the one song repeated at every junction being Nearer, My God, to Thee.

Reputed to have been McKinley’s favorite song, and his final words, the mournful monotony of the dirge eventually took a toll on the train’s passengers, who became angry, depressed, or simply burst into tears hearing the song as the day wore on. Other public observances at stations included coins, flowers, gloves, even pages pulled from bibles, left on the tracks to become flattened mementos of the grim occasion.

The last great choir, an estimated 2,000 African-Americans, met the train in Baltimore. According to Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris: “The tenderness of their voices was such that both words and melody [of Nearer, My God to Thee] regained full poignance. At least one passenger felt that it was the sweetest music he had ever heard.”

An hour later a silent crowd met the train in Washington. There was no singing then, only an Army bugler playing Taps as McKinley’s coffin was transferred from train to waiting hearse.

A quarter century following McKinley’s death, Charlie Poole recorded The Whitehouse Blues, a version of Zolgotz stripped of any  reference to the shooter and the shooting—the song begins with the doctor’s unsuccessful search for the bullet—while adding poetic elements, less a news ballad than a lyrical survey of the old, weird American landscape:

            Roosevelt in the White House/takin’ out a silver cup.

            ‘Kinley in the graveyard/he’ll never wakes up.

            Pain [?] the train, she’s just on time/she runs a thousand miles/from eight o’clock to nine/from Buffalo to Washington

In 1930, A.P. Carter drew heavily from White House Blues, in lines and melody, to create The Cannonball, an up-tempo ode to moving on that the Carter Family recorded in Memphis that year. In a rare solo vocal, Carter sings in his odd, tremble-y voice:

            You can wash my jumper, starch my overhauls/catch the train they call The Canonball/from Buffalo to Washington.

            Yonder come the train/comin’ down the track/carried me away/but it ain’t gonna carry me back/my honey babe, my blue-eyed babe.

That same Memphis session included the Carters’ iconic Worried Man Blues, another song appropriating McKinley’s funeral train, now shortened slightly for metric ends, and sung in beguiling harmony by Sara and Maybelle:

            The train that I ride, sixteen coaches long/the girl I love is on that train and gone.

Fast forward another quarter century, also in Memphis, at the Sun Studio, where Junior Parker, a local R&B star, reassembles McKinley’s funeral train, drawing from both The Cannonball and Worried Man Blues, and adding a new melody. Somehow the cars trimmed in black, noted in Zolgotz though not in either Carter song, reappear magically in the aptly titled Mystery Train, sung by Parker in a hip, urban croon about as far from A.P. Carter’s tremolo as you can get.

            Train I ride, sixteen coaches long/that long black train took my baby and gone.

Recording at Sun two years after that, Elvis Presley splits the difference between Junior Parker and A.P. Carter with an audacious vocal that swoops from alto to bass and back again above a twang-y, country jump beat:

            Train I riiiiiiiiiide sixteen coaches long/well that long black train took my bay-be and gone.

Scotty Moore’s guitar lines click and bump like a boxcar on very old tracks, which is in fact the case. President McKinley, still in the graveyard taking his rest, is well and truly gone. A national, public loss has with time become a secret, private one. We don’t know why the singer’s baby is on the black train or where it is taking her; we don’t know if she wanted to go, only that she’s not coming back. Given that, anybody might ride that mystery train. As the song on the record ends, Elvis whoops like a steam whistle and laughs, his turn now to fade into the past.

"...Doc says McKinley/I can’t find that ball..."

A great line from a great family of songs. Fascinating article, Mr. Gioia.