The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 7

Feature
Ridin’ the Rails
with Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman

by Bob Cox

Few icons in American history evoke more sentiment than the coal-fired steam locomotive, affectionately known as the “Iron Horse.” Between 1829 and the mid 1960s, these magnificent hunks of metal laboriously chugged through our countryside, stacks belching plumes of black smoke, and steam whistles blowing mournful melodies. The steam locomotives captivated the imagination of local musicians like fiddler Charlie Bowman, who incorporated train images and sounds into the lyrics and tunes of songs they wrote and recorded.

…By the early 1920s, old-time string bands were flourishing in upper East Tennessee. Gray Station, Tennessee, a tiny farm community between Johnson City and Kingsport, was home to one such group, Charlie Bowman and His Brothers (Elbert, Walter, and Argil). Known as “the champion fiddler of East Tennessee,” Charles T. Bowman (1889-1962), was a key member of several bands, including Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters (the Hill Billies). A recording artist, vaudeville performer, and songwriter, Charlie had the ability to coax startlingly realistic sound effects from a fiddle—ranging from hound dogs chasing a red fox through the Tennessee hills to a barnyard symphony featuring cacklings from a turkey gobbler and a bantam hen. In addition to the fiddle, Charlie could also play 15 standard and several not-so-conventional instruments, including brooms, saws, washtubs, thick balloons, a homemade one-string bass, and even an underfeed furnace.

The Hill Billies- Tony Alderman, John Hopkins, Charlie Bowman & Al Hopkins
Photo courtesy of Bob Cox




…Charlie displayed his comedic talent in the song, “Donkey On the Railroad Track,” a skit recorded on Vocalion Records on October 23, 1926. Al Hopkins provided the narrative, and Charlie imitated both the train and the donkey on his fiddle. The account concerns another CC&O Railroad engineer by the name of Jim McCasey and his flagman, John Sifford. As the train chugs down the track, the trainman spots a stubborn donkey in the distance, sitting on the track, refusing to move. After several futile blasts of the horn, McCasey shouts, “I’ll throw the fog into the son of a gun, and I will knock you off.” The song concludes when the train bumps the animal off the tracks, “laughing” at John and Jim as Charlie produces the braying sounds on his fiddle. This record illustrates the multipurpose function of the steam whistle—one minute warning others of its approach at crossings and depots, while the next minute communicating with the flagman using a predefined sequence of short and long horn blasts.

…Charlie Bowman and other songwriters have vividly preserved the train’s glorious legend in song. The sounds of the mighty steam engine may have left our countryside, but not our hearts, our memories, or our music.I’m going on the mountain,Gonna see my baby,And I ain’t coming back,No, I ain’t coming back.“Whoo-eee-ooo-eeeeeeeeeeee- (fading)Ooooooooooooooooo…Clickity-clack, clickity-clack,Clickity-clack, clickity-clack,Clickity-clack.

Writer Bob Cox is a native of Johnson City in upper East Tennessee, and is a great-nephew of Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman. With the help and encouragement of family members and old-time music historians, he has written a manuscript on the family’s music that he hopes will find its way into publication.

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