Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Edie Brickell and Steve Martin – "Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby" (2013)

Fifty feet down from the train to the ground
It's a miracle that he survived

On August 14, 1902, a 67-year-old Missouri farmer named William Helms hitched two horses to a  wagon and headed off to the local sawmill to get some lumber.

Helms had stopped near the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway bridge over the Big River to let his horses take a drink when the number 4 train crossed the bridge, heading north towards St. Louis.

After the train had passed him by, Helms heard an odd noise.  When he went to investigate it, he found a small suitcase at the base of the trestle that carried the train tracks to the Big River bridge.  It had apparently been thrown from the train.

The Big River trestle
The suitcase and its contents – a baby boy who was only a few days old – had landed about 50 feet below the elevated train track.  Not surprisingly, the baby was pretty banged up.  (One account says that he had a pronounced dent in his head when Helms found him.)  

The "Iron Mountain Baby" and
the valise he was found in
Helms carried the infant to his nearby farm, and he and his wife nursed the baby back to health.  

The couple adopted the little boy, who they named William Moses Gould Helms – the “Gould” was for Jay Gould, the wealthy “robber baron” who owned the railroad. 

The Helms family
Flattery will get you somewhere, it seems, because the railroad paid for the boy’s education.

Young William eventually got married and fathered one son.  He was living in Texas when he died in 1953.

His body was shipped by rail back to Missouri for burial.  It was only the second time Helms had ridden a train.

William Moses Gould Helms's tombstone
It remains a mystery who tossed the “Iron Mountain Baby” off train number 4, why he or she did so . . . and whether he or she intended that the poor little babe land in the Big River and drown.

In the next 2 or 3 lines, we’ll learn more about the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway's president, Jay Gould, and the small Arkansas railroad town that was named for him and for a rival railroad’s president.

*     *     *     *     *

Shortly after William Helms discovered the baby in the valise, the Rev. John T. Barton wrote a song titled “Iron Mountain Baby” about the incident.

Barton’s song assumes that the baby’s mother threw it from the train – perhaps because the father had forsaken her:

I have a song, I would like to sing 
It's awful, but it's true 
About a babe, thrown from a train 
By a mother, I know not who

The train was running at full speed
’Twas the northbound number four
And as it crossed the Big River bridge
She cast it from the door

A mother unkind, a father untrue
And yet, I'm bound to say
It must have grieved that mother’s heart
To cast her babe away

Over a century later, Edie Brickell and Steve Martin wrote and recorded a song titled “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby.”  (Sarah Jane was the name of the wife of William Helms.)  

The lyrics to that song have a very different take on who threw the baby off the train and why:

His mama must have died
Giving birth to the child
And the daddy went crazy
Got on the train
With a heart full of pain
And took it out on the baby

“Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby” was released on Love Has Come for You, a #1 bluegrass album Brickell and Martin released in 2013. 

Brickell (who married Paul Simon on my 40th birthday) wrote the lyrics for all the songs on that album, while Martin (who is not only a comedian but also a novelist, playwright, and Grammy-winning banjo player) wrote the music. 

Here’s a live performance of “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby” that is prefaced with Edie Brickell explaining what inspired the song’s lyrics:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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