• U.S.

Music: Balladist v. Victor

2 minute read

His wife and their 14 children said they had always known that some day “Old 97” would come roaring in to put them all on Easy Street. In Richmond, Va., where he was visiting a son-in-law, David Graves George was planning at last to buy a tobacco farm. For eight years the withered old hillbilly had tried to establish himself as the author of “The Wreck of the Old 97,” collect phonograph royalties from Victor Talking Machine Co. on that railroad ballad. Last week his case reached the nine black-robed judges of the U. S. Supreme Court.

Newspapers throughout the U. S. interpreted the Court’s decision as a victory for George, a yardman for the Southern Railroad when in 1903 its crack mail train tore down the side of White Oak Mountain, plunged off a curving trestle near Danville, Va. (see cut). George claimed that he helped pry nine bodies out of the wreckage, then went home inspired to tell the tragedy in verse. In a Federal District court he won his fight for royalties.* But when Victor appealed, the decision was reversed and his claim dismissed as fraudulent (TIME, Jan. 15).

Typical last week was an editorial in the New York World-Telegram: ” ‘The Wreck of the Old 97,’ according to the Supreme Court, belongs not to a soulless corporation but to a flesh and blood minstrel, David Graves George of Gretna, Va.” But, unfortunately for Minstrel George, his wife, his 14 children and the World-Telegram editorial writer, the Supreme Court had not undertaken to decide the ownership of the ballad. All it—The Press estimated the royalties as high as $2,000,000. A more likely figure is $375,006.* had done was to pass on a technical kink and deny the legality of Victor’s belated appeal from the trial court to the Circuit Court. If lazy newshawks had taken the trouble to read the Supreme Court’s decision, they would have seen that David Graves George was right back where he was in 1933 prior to Victor’s appeal. Before he gets a cent of damages, Victor has the right to go again into the Circuit Court, stands the same good chance of winning.

*The Press estimated the royalties as high as $2,000,000. A more likely figure is $375,000.

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