Johnson City in Washington County, Tennessee — The American South (East South Central)
The Music of the Rails
From the 1820s, when the first commercial railroads were developed in the United States, railroads were built across the country at an astonishing rate. By the time the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC) was completed in 1881, the railroad had become an essential part of daily life throughout America, providing vital transportation, communication, mail service, and jobs. The railroad also became an important part of popular culture; writers, musicians, artists, and songwriters were captivated by the romance of the rails. As a result, trains and railroad imagery figure prominently in countless songs across many musical genres, including gospel, blues, old time, country, bluegrass, folk, and rock and roll. Well-known railroad songs include: "The Ballad of John Henry," "The Wreck of the Old 97,” "This Train is Bound for Glory," "The Midnight Special," "Life's Railway to Heaven," and "The Wabash Cannonball." Several songs were also written about the ET&WNC Railroad Over the years, including the Ledford recording pictured above.
—Department of Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University
As a major railroad junction, it is not surprising that Johnson City also became a crossroads for music. North Carolina musician Walter Davis recalled noted bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson performing here in the early 1920s. In addition, two influential musicians known for their songs about the railroad had Johnson City connections. Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), who became known as the first superstar of country music, performed in Johnson City before his breakthrough 1927 recordings in Bristol. Rodgers grew up in Mississippi, where his father was a railroad worker and Rodgers himself also worked on the rails, hence his nickname: "The Singing Brakeman."
Charlie Bowman (1889-1962), known as "Fiddlin' Charlie," was a local musician, from Gray Station, Tennessee. His father worked for the railroad, with young Charlie sometimes assisting. Bowman was a champion fiddler and became an important figure in the development of old time and early country music, serving as a member of Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters, also known as The Hill Billies. Bowman is known for writing or arranging several railroad songs, including "C.C.&O. No. 558," "The Nine-Pound Hammer," and "Donkey on the Railroad Track."
Erected by Department of Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University.
Topics. This historical Arts, Letters, Music • Railroads & Streetcars. A significant historical year for this entry is 1881.
Location. 36° 18.684′ N, 82° 19.567′ W. Marker is in Johnson City, Tennessee, in Washington County. Marker can be reached from the intersection of Alabama Street and Legion Street. Marker is located on the Tweetsie Trail, 7/10 mile east of the Johnson City Trailhead. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Johnson City TN 37601, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 2 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. A Narrow-Gauge Railroad (here, next to this marker); Passenger Service (here, next to this marker); The Robertson Home, Site of First Court of Washington County (approx. 0.4 miles away); First Court of Washington County (approx. 0.4 miles away); Trail Geology (approx. 0.6 miles away); Story of the Tweetsie (approx. 0.6 miles away); Robins’ Roost (approx. one mile away); Tipton-Haynes Cemetery (approx. 1.1 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Johnson City.
More about this marker. Access to this marker is via bicycle or foot on the Tweetsie Trail.
Credits. This page was last revised on October 19, 2021. It was originally submitted on October 17, 2021, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. This page has been viewed 142 times since then and 53 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. submitted on October 17, 2021, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.