The Flying Crow Blues
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204 The Flying Crow Blues —Paul Swinton “The Flying Crow” was a train line connecting Port Arthur, Texas, to Kansas City, with major stops at Shreveport, as well as Texarkana, another significant hub of the Ark-La-Tex. Recorded by Oscar “Buddy” Woods (see “Jerry’s Saloon Blues”) and Ed Schaffer, playing together as the Shreveport Home Wreckers, their version of “The Flying Crow” is a Shreveport example of a widespread blues tradition of homage to the railroads. Lead Belly sang about them in “Rock Island Line” and in “The Midnight Special,” which details the pleasures brought to Sugarland (Texas) prison inmates when the train by that name brought their loved ones to visit. Often the vehicle of choice for African Americans leaving the South in search of a better life during the Great Migration, trains figure in recorded blues by artists throughout the South beginning in the early 1920s. When I first heard “Shetland Pony Blues” by Son House, the middle passage seemed to contain some loud swishing surface noise. With repeated listening, it became clear that these sounds were that of a passing steam train picked up by the original recording equipment. I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me, not only hearing this classic blues tune but also discovering this more than welcome intruder. The romanticism and pure nostalgia attached to vintage blues recordings and the steam train will always evoke thoughts of a bygone age. The steam train has always held an honorary position in the story of prewar blues. “The Seminole,” “The Sunshine Special,” “The Southern Belle,” and others have all been immortalized in the lyrics of countless blues recordings and if the history of one train and its relationship to the blues is worth examining , it would be the Kansas City Southern Railroad’s “Flying Crow.” THE FLYING CROW BLUES 205 The Kansas City Southern railroad was conceived by Arthur Stilwell in 1886 and incorporated the following year as the Kansas City Suburban Belt Line. Stilwell wanted a railroad to run from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico. By 1896, he had reached his goal. He established the present city of Port Arthur, Texas, which he named after himself, and although he had lost control of the company by the twenties , the line had by then become a major contribution to the region’s economy , and the numerous towns Stilwell created along the line remain as minor economic and political centers. On June 15, 1928, the KCS put into service its flagship passenger train to be hauled by heavy “Pacific” steam locomotives, to journey a distance of 788 miles in twenty-five hours and travel “straight as the crow flies . . .” “. . . the ‘Flying Crow’ was to be the premier varnish on the KCS for twelve years. To be exact, it was the only long distance passenger train on the schedule . The ‘Crow’ never did set land speed records but you never could find a train that was known personally by more people.”1 A map from a KCS employee timetable book, dated May 3, 1931, shows most places of significance on the railway. From De Queen, Arkansas, southward, is the area of the KCS in which the black population would have been concentrated. The Ouachita (WASH-uh-taw) mountains begin at De Queen. They extend up as far as Poteau, Oklahoma. The KCS is then in the Ozark mountains from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, to Joplin, Missouri. Above Joplin, the railway is in prairie land to Kansas City. These mountain and prairie regions traditionally lack substantial black populations due to their geographical and agricultural characteristics. South of De Queen, however , the racial composition was markedly different. The valley of the Red River (along the KCS from just below De Queen to just below Shreveport, Louisiana) was prime cotton plantation land and hence had a sizeable black element in its population. A major petroleum drilling boom in the same area during the first three decades of the century, undoubtedly had provided much work for common laborers. From Shreveport southward almost to Beaumont, Texas, the KCS courses through a pine forest region. The great timber era passed its peak here in the 1920s, and the great depression would have found many former loggers and mill workers of both races ready to sing the blues. It was almost inevitable that the “Flying Crow” would be celebrated in song. The first phonograph recording to mention the “Flying Crow” appeared in February 1932 by Eddie and Oscar . . . PAUL SWINTON 206 The...


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