DAUGHTERS IN SEARCH OF THEIR FATHER
By: Shirley Lewey-Payne
In June of 1983, while I was working in an insurance claims office in Atlanta, Ga., I unknowingly began a search for information, which would last for at least thirteen years. My boss had brought in a new songbook which he had ordered from Reader's Digest; a Country & Western collection which contained many songs designated as American Classics. As I flipped through the pages, I discovered the song, "The Wreck of the Old 97", a song that had a personal meaning to me. To my surprise, I noted the words, "Words and Music by Henry Whitter, Fred Jackson Lewey and Charles W. Noell". I say 'surprised', because Fred Jackson Lewey was my father. I had been told many years ago by my mother that he was the original author of the song, but somehow, we doubted that. There was a piece of handwritten music in her cedar chest, but that too, did not prove anything. I had once inquired at the Library of Congress, back in the 1960's, and attempted to verify who wrote the song. All I ever heard was, "Anonymous". I even once heard a man on a TV interview, claiming that he was the composer. His story was so bizarre that my mother and I laughed at him at the time, but I never gave it much thought again.
One of the reasons for my lack of knowledge about my father was that our family was separated when I was eight months old. My father died at that time -- 1935. My mother, a post-polio cripple, was unable to provide for me, and I was adopted by a wonderful couple at the age of fourteen months. I grew up in Central Virginia on a truck farm owned and operated by my adoptive parents. I always knew my biological mother, and knew and loved my older sister Sunny. My mother remarried, and ten years later gave birth to my half brother.As I grew older and had children of my own, as often happens, I became more and more interested in and attached to my biological family. I asked my real mother many questions; little did I know that she was not totally honest with her answers. It was only after her death that my sister and I learned about the 'real' Fred Lewey.
When I first saw my father's name in the songbook, I became very nervous and excited. I called the Reader's Digest Office in Pleasantville, NY, the only location I was aware of. When I identified myself as Mr. Lewey's daughter, I believe they may have thought I was a fraud, or at least was going to challenge royalties or copyrights. In any case, they connected me with a legal office, where someone took information from me about my request. I wanted to know how they proved the correct composer, and how I might obtain documentation of the info they had. They very kindly wrote me in a few days, advising that they had, "Licensed this wonderful old song from the current publisher, Shapiro and Bernstein", and suggested that I contact hem in their New York office. I took their advice, and thus began a genealogy search which would create many emotions in the future for my sister, my children, and some friends involved; i.e.: pride, shock, anger, embarrassment, incredulity, and entertainment.
I was aware that my father was from the Burlington, North Carolina, area where his son (my older half brother) had lived for many years. I had known my older sister while I was growing up, and we have been close for most of our lives. I knew my older half brother also, briefly, as he dropped in and out of our lives from the time I was fifteen until his death about twenty years later. My sister's memories of our father were fond, but were those of a six-year-old child. Our brother could have provided us much information, but steadfastly avoided talking about our father most of the time. We knew he was a loom repairman in cotton, woolen and silk mills, but would later learn that he had been a restaurateur, a musician, a steamship hand, a mechanic, a carpenter, and most importantly, an obvious troubadour. On one thing all relatives who knew him, and one or two others I have met who were acquainted with him agreed: he was a good provider for his family, he loved his family dearly, and he was a good man. Apparently he was a rover all his life, moving from place to place, but that was due to his line of work, repairing looms at one mill, then was contracted to go on to another. In an old newspaper article my mother had, the reporter was interviewing him about the authorship of "The Wreck of the Old 97". My father indicated that he did write the song. To quote the article (the copy does not show the name or date of the newspaper), he indicated that he was a "young sprout who went around to dances, and accompanied his singing with music from a guitar". At the time of the wreck, Sept, 1903, he was working at the Riverside Mill in Danville, Va., which was and is located near the site of the trestle where the Southern Mail train, pulled by Engine #97, plunged off into a ravine. Eleven men were killed, and six more injured. Of course mail was lost, and all the train destroyed except for the new engine. That was later hauled out of the ravine, repaired, and went on to serve until 1930 when she was scrapped.Our mother had told me that a relative of our father was fireman on the train, which drew him to go from the mill to the wreck, and attempt to help (Evidence that this relationship was true was found later, as we searched through genealogical records and found that the fireman's family name and the Lewey name go back, together, to the immigration of ancestors to America from Alsace-Loraine, France, and that both families settled in Guilford Co.,NC, in 1749.There were marriages between those families up through the early 1900's). He was accompanied by his friend and co-worker, Charles Noell. Upon returning home several hours later, the two men discussed a song, and my Dad began work on that. It took about a month before they agreed on the result, then Fred began singing it to his co-workers in the cotton mill. He and Charles then moved to Lynchburg, Va., where Fred, his first wife Laura Grace and Charles all lived in a boarding house. It was there that Charles added the verse cautioning "All you ladies, please take warning, etc.", thus guaranteeing that he is listed as a co-composer on the copyright.
After a short residence in Concord, NC, Fred then left the mills for a while, and traveled to Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, then back to Port Arthur, Texas, where he hired onto to a steamer and sailed the seas for a period. It is recorded that the song sort of followed his travel routes, and became popular first in the states listed above. Fred advised in the aforementioned newspaper interview that the song has been changed many times, with shades of Casey Jones being added in by some people, but originally there were fewer verses. Up to fourteen verses have been sung and recorded, and there have been several claims to authorship. One man made a claim that he wrote it, presented a copy of what he said was the original, and went to court with Victor Recording. He won in State Court, Victor appealed to the Supreme Court, and my dad was called upon to sing the song the way he wrote it, and sold it, to Victor. Actually, he sold it outright to Victor for $300, but more money was spent by Victor, proving who wrote it, than has ever been spent on authorship of a song in the Country or Folk field. It was determined that the paper on which the 'original' was written and presented by the imposter, had not been manufactured until twenty years after the song was first known and recorded. This man had been awarded a settlement based on the State Court decision, but he spent it all defending his phony position before the Supreme Court. (We now have a tape of the cylinder recording of my father singing the song as he did in the trial).
After I retired , my husband and I moved to Florida. My sister was already living there, and we now reside about an hour's drive apart. My husband had essentially completed a genealogy search for his family roots, beginning about five years previously. He had often said we should do mine, and had offered to assist, using the references he had discovered in his own search. My sister and I had begun to talk about our family, and wondered what the real facts were about our father's side. We never knew much, except there were apparently three brothers. This was indicated on a page from a Bible that my sister had. It came from the possessions of our Uncle Grady, who died when my sister was about fourteen years old. In his elder years, he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where Mama and Sunny then lived. He often talked to my sister about our father, and their mother. Uncle Grady was actually an older half brother to my dad, and "Grady" was his last name. We have never been able to verify anything about his other siblings. We really felt that the information we had was so scant and fragmented that we would not be able to find any records.
Fred Lewey's parents were John Lewey and Clementine Elizabeth Hatchell. John Lewey was a soldier in the War Between The States, was twice wounded and returned to active duty, and was one of the soldiers called parolees, who surrendered with Robert E, Lee at Appomattox, Va. Clementine Elizabeth Hatchell descended from a family of Irish flax workers, tracing back to the old country.
Fred was an accomplished loom repairman, and a troubadour by choice, I believe. His 'Lewey' ancestors descend from Lutheran people who migrated from Germany and France in the mid 1700s, and settled in the Gibsonville area of North Carolina. Although he traveled extensively in his life, his roots were always in Burlington, NC, and surrounding areas. Some of his relatives lived for many years in Guilford Co. He is buried in Graham, NC, not far from where he lived most of his life, and died.
He has been recognized in the archives of folk and blue grass music at The Library of Congress, Univ. of Oregon, Univ. of North Carolina, and UCLA, as the original composer of the most recorded country song, the song for which the highest amount of money has been spent to prove it's authorship, and a song designated as an American Classic. The fact that he has never been recognized in the Country Music Hall of Fame is peculiar, especially since Johnny Cash has been noted there for his recorded version of the Wreck of The 97.
There have been many stories written and told about the wreck, covering the speed of the train, the way people set their watches by the train's daily route; of the canaries traveling on the train and freed in the wreck, singing in the trees after the tragedy.
The song itself has been one of the most prolific and financially successful ones written, but no proceeds of any magnitude went to the men who wrote it. The fact that the wreck is remembered almost 100 years later can be attributed to the song. By 1933, 5,000,000 records of this song had been sold by Victor recording. According to the Readers Digest Songbook of American Classics, it was the first country hit of the pre-electric epoch. Various information indicates that Henry Whitter wrote the music , as "The Ship That Never Returned"; Fred Lewey wrote the original words, and Charles Noell wrote the original two additional verses. Whoever wrote what, the song has certainly been remembered. Also, no one I ever met actually knew the Ship That Never Returned. But I have met very few, in all walks of life, who had not heard and recognized The Wreck of the Old 97.
Danville, Virginia, for many years held a bluegrass festival related to the "Wreck", where people competed in methods of playing the song. A young man who owned a restaurant there called "The Old 97" told me that he would never have had a successful steak house, nor would the festivals in Danville have been noted, had it not been for my Dad writing that song. I liked that.
During our search, my husband and I traveled to the Burlington area, where with the help of two funeral homes (a source my husband suggested as the best starting point on a genealogy search, and where we got the best concrete information to begin), the local newspaper, the Times-Union and it's editor, Don Bolden, we located the cemetary where Fred Lewey was buried, plus the location of his death and his home at the time of his death. I talked with several Lewey descendants, including the ex-wife of my half brother (deceased). As a result of these contacts, I gathered enough information to get a good start.
Then, my husband, my sister and I began a long search of census records, deeds, library records in two states. My sister and I returned to NC, and met some "cousins", one of whom took us to Orange County to research the original land records of the first Lewey descendants. We visited the sites of old Lewey homes, the cemetaries, and old family churches.
After we became Internet connected, I was able to make contact with some other excellent sources of information. Mr Norm Cohen, (a retired professor from the Univ. of Oregon) had published a paper in the Journal of the American Folklore at UCLA, concerning the history of the song, "The Wreck of the Old 97." Mr Cohen responded to an Internet inquiry I had made, and was a wonderful source of information. He advised that Robert Gordon, the first curator of the Folk Music Archives at the Library of Congress, made a trip through the South in the late 1920s, collecting data on folk singers and old country music. In so doing, he met our father, and they discussed the "Wreck". Later, when the litigation about the authors of the song occurred, Mr Gordon was called as an expert witness, and he, in turn, suggested that our Dad be called. Mr Gordon made a cylinder recording of Fred Lewey singing the song in the Supreme Court hearing. That cylinder was preserved in the Library of Congress. We were able to order a taped copy of the recording from them. For the first time, my sister and I were able to listen together to our father singing the song. Needless to say, we were overcome emotionally; shocked to hear a much slower version than is now known, done in a high Irish tenor voice.
We were able to obtain copies of Mr Gordon's written documents with Mr Cohen's and Ms. Duffy Green's help (University of Oregon); some from UCLA, and some info from the University of North Carolina Folk Music Archives. We also provided a copy of the cylinder tape to these three institutions, with our family history, to be placed in their archives. We are very proud that these fine institutions chose to honor our father for his contribution to American Classic Folk and Country Music. We are also grateful that this Internet site, maintained by a North Carolinean, elects to share this information about a fellow "Tarheel", who felt so strongly about a tragedy he witnessed in his late teens, that he wrote a song which has been remembered for so long.