THE HELL-BOUND TRAIN
A Texas cowboy lay down on a barroom floor,
Having drunk so much he could drink no more;
So he fell asleep with a troubled brain,
To dream that he rode on a hell-bound train.
The engine with murderous blood was damp,
And was brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp;
An imp for fuel was shoveling bones,
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans.
The boiler was filled with lager beer,
And the Devil himself was the engineer;
The passengers were a most motley crew
Church member, atheist, Gentile and Jew.
Rich men in broadcloth, beggars in rags,
Handsome young ladies, withered old hags.
Yellow and black men, red, brown and white,
All chained together—O God, what a sight!
While the train rushed on at an awful pace,
The sulfurous fumes scorched their hands and face;
Wider and wider the country grew,
As faster and faster the engine flew
Louder and louder the thunder crashed,
And brighter and brighter the lightning flashed;
Hotter and hotter the air became,
Till the clothes were burnt from each quivering frame.
And out of the distance there arose a yell,
“Ha, ha,” said the Devil, “we’re nearing hell!”
Then, oh, how the passengers shrieked with pain,
And begged the Devil to stop the train.
But he capered about and danced with glee,
And laughed and joked at their misery.
“My faithful friends, you have done the work,
And the Devil never can a payday shirk.
“You’ve bullied the weak, you’ve robbed the poor,
The starving brother you’ve turned from the door;
You’ve laid up gold where the canker rust,
And you have given free vent to your beastly lust.
“You’ve justice scorned and corruption sown,
And trampled the laws of nature down;
You have drunk, rioted, cheated, plundered, and lied,
And mocked at God in your hell-born pride.
“You have paid full fare, so I’ll carry you through;
For its only right you should have your due.
Why, the laborer always expects his hire,
So I’ll land you safe in the lake of fire —
“Where your flesh will waste in the flames that roar,
And my imps torment you forever more.”
Then the cowboy awoke with an anguished cry,
His clothes wet with sweat and and his hair standing high.
Then he prayed as he’d never had prayed till that hour
To be saved from his sin and the demon’s power.
And his prayers and pleadings were not in vain;
For he never rode the hell-bound train
The above version of “The Hell-Bound Train” comes from Jack Thorp’s Songs of the Cowboys, and he prefaces it with “Heard this sung at a cow-camp near Pontoon Crossing, on the Pecos River, by a puncher named Jack Moore.” See our feature about the 1921 book here.
Listen to the late, great legendary cowboy singer and historian Glenn Ohrlin (1926-2015) sing “The Hell-Bound Train.” His landmark book, The Hell-Bound Train; A Cowboy Songbook, is a treasury of information about cowboy songs. In his book, he tells he learned the piece from an aunt, and that its origin is “a minor mystery.”
Andy Hedges has an excellent rendition on his Cowboy Recitations album.
This 1907 photograph by Ed. Tangen, Boulder, Colorado, from a stereo card, is titled “The Thirsty Cowpuncher.” Find more about it at The Library of Congress.