- Written by
- Clarence Wilson
Long thought to be a traditional prisoner work song or spiritual, research by Stephen Wade (published in 2012 in his book “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience”) revealed that “Rock Island Line” was actually written in 1929 as part of a marketing campaign for the real Rock Island Line (in full, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad). The railroad encouraged its employees to take part in extra-curricular activities such as singing in choirs and writing songs to build brand awareness and loyalty in their communities (“boosting” in contemporary terminology), and to this end the song exhorted listeners to “Buy your tickets over the Rock Island Lines”. The song’s author Clarence Wilson was an engine wiper (cleaner) who worked at the Biddle Street Shops, the railroad’s central freight yard near Little Rock, Arkansas. He was a member of a vocal group, the Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet, that was based at his workplace and this group first performed his song in December 1929.
Five years later, John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) first heard the song when they visited prisons in Arkansas during one of their song collecting expeditions. They first recorded the song on September 29, 1934 at the Tucker Farm prison, performed by a group of prisoners whose names were not recorded. This recording appears never to have been commercially released or otherwise issued. Lomax and Lead Belly recorded the song again on October 2, 1934 at the Cummins Farm prison, sung by eight convicts led by Kelly Pace. The lyrics had already evolved considerably since 1929, and now included a message of religious redemption.
Lead Belly himself performed and recorded the song many times. His first recording was made on June 22, 1937, while the first to be released (possibly the first release by anybody) was made in January 1942. In that recording he introduced a monologue in which the train driver claimed to be carrying livestock to avoid being sent into a siding to give way to trains with higher priority freight. He gradually perfected this monologue in his subsequent performances and recordings.
Many of the misconceptions about the song appear to stem from John Lomax, his son Alan and Lead Belly. For example, in the Penguin Book of American Folk Songs (1964) edited by Alan Lomax, Kelly Pace is said to be the composer of the song, despite John Lomax having already heard the song before recording Kelly Pace. In fact, the Lomaxes did not make any enquiries about the origins of the song while making their recordings. In his early recordings, Lead Belly described the song as a work song that was used to time axe-strokes while chopping wood. This appears to be an invention by the Lomaxes or by Lead Belly.
In the UK, the first recording of the song was by George Melly in 1951. In July 1954, the song was recorded by Lonnie Donegan (banjo, guitar and vocals) with Beryl Bryden (washboard) and Chris Barber (bass). This recording was released as a single at the end of 1955, kick-starting the UK skiffle craze that inspired many young musicians to form bands, including four youngsters from Liverpool who eventually became The Beatles. Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” was the first debut single to be certified gold in the UK, and the first single by a UK artist to reach the Billboard top ten in the US. More controversially, Donegan copyrighted the song in his name, thus securing lucrative royalties (he was only paid scale for the recording itself).
In Donegan’s hands, the lyrics again evolved, but into the realms of fiction. His lyrics incorrectly claim the Rock Island Line runs down into New Orleans, and he changed Lead Belly’s monologue so that the train driver was attempting to avoid a toll at a tollgate. There are/were no such tollgates on the Rock Island Line or on other US railroads.
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