The fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special” is about the passenger train of the same name….which was written by Ervin T. Rouse in 1938. The original recording was created by Ervin and Gordon Rouse in 1939. It is often called simply The Special. It has been referred to as the fiddle player’s national anthem.
By the 1950’s, it had become a perennial favorite at bluegrass festivals….where it was popular for its rousing energy. For a long time no fiddle player would be hired for a bluegrass band unless he could play it…..as commented on by Norm Cohen, author of Long Steel Rail, The Railroad in American Folksong when he said….“For many years, the Orange Blossom Special has been not only a train imitation piece….but also a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity….when performed at breakneck tempos and with imitative embellishments that evoke train wheels and whistles….which is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listners to a quick rolling boil.”
Rouse copyrighted the song before the Orange Blossom Special ever came to Jacksonville…..as other musicians, including Robert Russell “Chubby” Wise, have claimed authorship of the song. Wise did not write it although he claimed for years that he had. Rouse, a mild mannered man who lived deep in the Everglades never contested the matter. Years later, Johnny Cash learned of Rouse and brought him to Miami to play the song at one of his concerts…..as Gene Christian, a fiddler for Bill Monroe who knew both men, confirms that Rouse wrote and copyrighted the song….saying in the interview that Chubby Wise popularized the song by playing it weekly on the Grand Ole Opry. As Wise tells the story, he and Rouse decided to visit the Jacksonville Terminal in Florida to tour the Orange Blossom Special train…. saying “even though it was about three in the morning we went right into the Terminal and got on board and toured that train, and it was just about the most luxurious thing I had ever seen. Ervin was impressed, too. And when we got done lookin’ ‘er over he said, Let’s write a song about it…..so we went over to my place … and that night she was born. Sitting on the side of my bed. We wrote the melody in less than an hour, and called it Orange Blossom Special….when later Ervin and his brother put some words to it.”
Rouse copyrighted the song in 1938 and recorded it in 1939….then Bill Monroe….who is regarded by many as “the father of bluegrass music”….recorded the song with Art Wooten on fiddle…. and made it a hit. Since then countless versions have been recorded….among them Wise’s own, as an instrumental in a 1969 album Chubby Wise and His Fiddle. And that version, said Wise, “is the way it was written and the way it’s supposed to be played”.….but many great fiddlers have played it since….who obviously believe there are many ways to play the song….as evidence by this Austin City Limits compilation seen herewith.