Once in awhile, the classic country music fanatic and the ghost story buff in me smack headlong into each other, as in this post.:)
In 1967 the late Woodrow Wilson “Red” Sovine (1917-1980) released what is arguably his greatest hit: the recitation “Phantom 309.” It tells the story of a hitchhiker who gets a ride from a trucker named Big Joe one cold rainy night. Joe takes him as far as a diner in a small town and gives him a dime for coffee before driving off into the darkness and vanishing from sight. At the diner, when the hitchhiker mentions Big Joe, the manager tells him that Big Joe and his truck–the aptly named Phantom 309–are ghosts. Ten years earlier, Big Joe had topped a nearby hill to find a school bus stopped in front of him; rather than hit the bus, he turned the truck off the road. In the ensuing crash Big Joe died and his beloved truck was destroyed. In life Big Joe had picked up hitchhikers and helped them on their way; in death he’s no different. The manager tells the hitchhiker his coffee’s on the house, and as for the dime, “keep it as a souvenir/From Big Joe and the Phantom 309.”
I’ve always loved this song; it plays to Red Sovine’s strength at recitations (he was affirmatively not the best singer ever to hit Nashville), and it’s an outstanding example in a small number of country and bluegrass songs that deal with the supernatural.
Fast forward to 2004. In her book GHOSTS AMONG US, Leslie Rule recounts an item from an April 2002 edition of the Halifax, Nova Scotia DAILY NEWS. According to the item, hitchhikers around Halifax’s Waverly Road have been reporting for some four decades that they have gotten lifts from a trucker called Joe (his truck has no name, apparently), who has been dead for many years.
Coincidentally, the period 1967-2007 spans precisely four decades. But here’s where the chicken or the egg conundrum comes in: was Red Sovine inspired by Nova Scotian folklore to write “Phantom 309” or did “Phantom 309” inspire Nova Scotian folklore?
I have a copy of what may be the best-known collection of Nova Scotian ghost stories in my personal library: Helen Creighton’s BLUENOSE GHOSTS (1957). These stories do not include a phantom trucker; most of them deal with ghosts from the sea and date back many decades before “Phantom 309.”
Red Sovine’s fellow country star, singer Hank Snow, was a native Nova Scotian, but Snow had permanently relocated to the United States some two decades before the earliest reports of the ghostly Halifax trucker, so it seems unlikely that he told Sovine such a story.
There are several accounts online that insist that the stories in Nova Scotia predate “Phantom 309” but these reports are so vague as to dates for the earliest sighting of Big Joe as to be virtually worthless to the serious researcher.
So which DID come first: the chicken or the egg?
Big Joe has much in common with a story from 1940s Newfoundland regarding a ghostly moonshiner called Smoker who rescues people lost in the snow to expiate his sins. I suspect Big Joe also lurks at the back of David Allan Coe’s “The Ride,” in which the ghost of Hank Williams gives a hitchhiker a ride to Nashville. All in all, though, whether he was a ghost first, or whether he’s a character from a song who became a ghostlore figure, Big Joe sounds like a man worth knowing.