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By Jim Bickal
Minnesota Public Radio
October 15, 2002

The first known recording of the Rock Island Line was made in 1934 in an Arkansas prison by the famed folklorist John Lomax.
(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Lomax Collection. )

The first known recording of the Rock Island Line was made in 1934 in an Arkansas prison by the famed folklorist John Lomax. Lomax, whose son Alan would also become a well-known music collector, spent most of his life on the road in pursuit of original American folk songs. He went from cowboy cattle drives to lumberjack camps to southern prisons, recording songs and interviewing the singers.

By the time of his death in 1948, Lomax had collected thousands of songs. Folk singer Pete Seeger knew John Lomax. Seeger says Lomax did more than just collect the music.

"Lomax was one of the first collectors who very frankly wanted to give the songs back to the people. Many collectors collect just so they can make their private little collection and get it on their private shelves. J. Frank Doby, a great collector of folk stories, says a lot of collectors just dig up dead bones from one graveyard in order to bury them in another, but John Lomax wanted to give the songs back to the people," Seeger says.

One way that Lomax gave the songs back to the people was on recordings issued by the Library of Congress. Music historian Charles Wolfe says the Lomax recordings are invaluable to anyone interested in learning about the evolution of American music.

"Nobody had done it on the scale that Lomax did and nobody had Lomax's real ace-in-the-hole, which was this wonderful recording machine that he had borrowed from the Library of Congress. And when I say recording machine, remember that back in these days there was no tape recording. The recorders were all big disc cutting machines. They weren't very easily portable. Lomax's set took up most of the trunk of his car and it was big, bulky, cumbersome, difficult to use, but it was the only thing he had. And because he was able to not only collect the songs and interview the informants, but also actually make a record of the songs, his work is immediately what strikes us today as the most interesting and the most useful," according to Wolfe.

Lead Belly had been imprisoned at Angola since 1930 after his conviction for assault. He had been in prison twice before, including once for murder.
(Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, reproduction number LC-USZ62-121169.)

In the 1930s John Lomax was especially interested in collecting African-American music. And he felt that prisons were a perfect place to find the kind of untainted music he was looking for.

"He got the idea that since the 20th century was changing the landscape of music so quickly with mass media and records and radio that the older styles that had once been preserved in the mountains or in the case of cowboy songs in the remote ranch camps that for African-Americans this preservation might have worked best in prisons. So, he decided that people who had been locked up in prison for maybe a generation or so would be basically preserving unchanged a lot of the older black folk music," says Wolfe.

And so Lomax went from prison to prison asking inmates to sing the traditional songs for him. And it was in a prison near Little Rock, Ark., that John Lomax first heard and recorded The Rock Island Line.

But it wasn't John Lomax who would take the Rock Island Line and make it part of the American folk tradition. The man who did that was working as Lomax's assistant on the day this recording was made. He had been hired to fill in for Lomax's son Alan, who was usually the one enlisted to help out on these recording expeditions. But Alan was ill at the time so his father hired a man he met the year before at the state prison in Angola, Louisiana. His name was Huddie Ledbetter, but he would eventually become well known by his prison nickname: Lead Belly.

Lead Belly had been imprisoned at Angola since 1930 after his conviction for assault. He had been in prison twice before, including once for murder. Charles Wolfe is the author of The Life and Legend of Lead Belly. He says Lead Belly lived in a violent world.

This is the disc-cutting recorder that John Lomax used to make his field recordings.

"When he was 16, Lead Belly's father gave him two things he thought he would need to make it in the world. One of them was a horse and the other was a pistol and Lead Belly was proud to have both of them. He was a hot tempered young man and he was a violent man and he lived in a violent society. You have to remember that the area that Lead Belly lived in, west Texas, northwest Louisiana, that area was in many ways the last frontier. When Lead Belly grew up there at the turn of the century, people still wore sidearms as they walked the streets. It was very much yet a part of the old west. And people were very quick to draw down and to fire and shooting and knife fights were not at all uncommon and he was part of this violent world," Wolfe says.

John Lomax was willing to look past Lead Belly's criminal record, because of his talent as a musician. Lomax had heard many singers over the years, but when he heard Lead Belly, he knew this one was something special.

"Lomax, for his part was impressed with Lead Belly, not only because he knew so many different songs, but because he really was a good singer," says Wolfe. "Lomax didn't let the fact that an informant was a good singer get in the way of preserving a song. But if you did find somebody who was a good singer and who also knew a lot of songs, than that was a real bonus. And Lead Belly could actually sing on key. He actually had a wonderful way with a song. He was a fine guitar player and he was a superb entertainer."

On his visit to the Angola prison in 1933 and another visit a year later, Lomax recorded Lead Belly for the first time singing songs that he would make famous, songs like The Midnight Special.

The legend of The Midnight Special is that a train would pass the prison each day at midnight and its headlight would flash through the bars and into the prison. The superstition was that if the light shone on you, that meant you would be the next man to get out of the prison.

Lead Belly saw John Lomax as his Midnight Special, his way to get out of Angola. He asked Lomax to record a song he had written, a plea to Louisiana Gov. O.K. Allen to release him from prison.

Lead Belly asked Lomax to deliver the recording to Gov. Allen. At the end of the song, Lead Belly made sure to tell the governor his given name and exactly where he could be found in prison.

It's unclear whether the song actually got him out of prison, but Lead Belly was pardoned a few months later. In the fall of 1934, he was hired by John Lomax. As they went from prison to prison looking for singers and songs, Lead Belly was valuable in a number of ways.

"Lead Belly did the driving. He took care of the carrying in of the recording equipment. He took care of the car; getting it gassed and watered. When they went into a prison, Lead Belly would start off by kind of singing some songs, to prime the pump. The other inmates would hear him and they would basically say, 'oh, that's the kind of stuff you want. I know that song or a version of that song,'" says Charles Wolfe.

In Sept. 1934 Lomax and Lead Belly were touring prisons in Ark. It was here that they both heard the Rock Island Line for the first time. In fact they heard it twice, in two different prisons, just a few weeks apart. The first time was at a the state prison in Little Rock.

On that occasion, Lomax didn't bother to write down the names of the singers. In his notes, he simply referred to them as a "group of convicts." But when he heard the song again a few weeks later at Cummins Farm near Gould, Ark., the performance was more polished and made a bigger impression on Lomax.

In his 1947 autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax describes how excited the prisoners were to get their songs recorded.

"Down the road and around the bend ran at top speed a group of laughing, shouting convicts with the guard loping behind, a shotgun braced against his saddle and pointing straight up. At last these exulting boys were to 'git on dat machine.' They came up panting from their wild race. Soon a picked group gathered about the microphone and sang."

The lead singer of this group was a prisoner named Kelly Pace, who was doing five years for burglary. While Lomax preserved Pace's song on the recording machine, Lead Belly added it to the collection of songs in his mind. In 1937, when he was asked to make a recording for the Library of Congress, Lead Belly used The Rock Island Line as an example of how a song could help a team of workers with the rhythm of a job like chopping wood.

"One man on one side, one on the other. Each man got a pole ax. And this man would cut right handed, he step on the other side and one's left handed and he's right over next to him except he's on the other side. They cuttin' in the same chip. You cut your ax in there and leave it. You got to pick it up and rhythm with the song."

By the time he started performing the Rock Island Line in front of live audiences, Lead Belly had transformed it from a call-and-response work song to a solo performance accompanied by guitar.

Pete Seeger says this is an example of Lead Belly's ability to hear a song and then make it his own. "Lead Belly, over the next 15 years or so, gave it more of a melody and with his big 12-string guitar some wonderful harmony and accompaniment. And it's no wonder that the song is now known as one of the greatest of the African-American prison songs."

John Lomax brought Lead Belly to the East Coast and arranged for a series of public appearances. Shortly after they arrived in New York, a sensationalized version of Lead Belly's life story appeared in the New York Herald Tribune. The headline read "Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to do a Few Tunes Between Homicides." He was billed as a "negro minstrel" from the deep south.

While Lomax helped cultivate this public image, he was also concerned that urban audiences would have trouble understanding Lead Belly's music.

Lomax felt that Lead Belly's songs were too raw and too esoteric and too detailed for the average listener to understand. They made reference to things that were so alien to middle class, white American life that he felt the general audience wouldn't understand it. So he began to ask Lead Belly to explain certain things about the songs before he would sing them.

And so Lead Belly began using stories to introduce some of his songs. In 1944 he added a prelude to the Rock Island Line. It's the story of a train approaching a depot. The engineer signals the depot agent that he doesn't have to stop and pay a toll because his cargo is live animals. After the train passes, the engineer crows that he put one over on the depot agent, because his train carried goods requiring the payment of a toll.

From then on, Lead Belly would always include the amusing tale of the toll-skipping train whenever he would sing the Rock Island Line. But over the years, people have wondered where it came from in the first place.

It appears to go back to the days in the middle of the 19th century when the Rock Island Line was just getting started. At that time, canals were still a popular way to transport commodities to market. And the states that had invested in digging canals made their money back, and then some, by collecting tolls from the barges that used the canals.

When the railroads came along, they often wanted to build their tracks right next to a canal. Some state governments were concerned that the cargo would move to the trains and cut into their canal profits. So they required that trains pay tolls on commodities that could have gone on the canal.

But livestock didn't use the canal. Rather than load the animals onto barges, pulled by mules, it was more efficient to simply walk them to market. Since they weren't competing with the canals, trains carrying livestock didn't have to pay tolls.

But the tolls were not collected at a tollbooth. The railroads actually sent a check to the state based on how many trains they said were carrying items subject to the tolls. Over time, lawmakers became skeptical of the numbers that the railroads were reporting to them, suggesting that the number of trains reportedly carrying livestock was being inflated.

A recording from a live performance that Lead Belly made in June 1949 was one of his last. He died six months later from ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. Though he never achieved commercial success during his lifetime, he left behind a huge catalog of songs that would inspire generations of singers.

The Weavers, featuring Pete Seeger, had a big hit with Lead Belly's Goodnight Irene in 1950 just one year after his death. The Weavers also recorded a version of the Rock Island Line.

But it wasn't the Weavers who would turn this song into a hit. The unlikely performer who did that was a Scottish singer named Lonnie Donegan. When he recorded the Rock Island Line in 1954, Donegan was virtually unknown. He played the banjo in the Chris Barber Jazz Band, one of a handful of New Orleans-style jazz groups that were a popular attraction in clubs around London at the time.

During performances, a tradition had developed that when the jazz band took a break, a smaller group led by Donegan playing guitar, would sing a set of American folk songs with an up-beat tempo. Donegan says it all started with an interest in the roots of jazz.

"Being interested in the jazz, I was also interested in the origins of the jazz which is all the Afro-American folk music and so on. And playing the banjo and guitar, it was very simple to get involved in strumming the guitar and singing the blues which we did for our own amusement and education as it were. This drifted on to the stage, by means of the boys going off for a beer and me getting up and singing. And it became a popular spot with the customer," Donegan says.

Donegan says that while these songs came from American folk music, they were different in several ways. "First and foremost it is American folk music and because I was involved in jazz, which is another form of American folk music, everything I sang had a little tinge of jazz influence in it. It wasn't just pure folk music. It wasn't a reiteration of what I'd already heard, we had added something to it, made it a little bit different because of the jazz input. Also, not being American, being Scottish stroke Irish, I suppose that also made a difference to the delivery when it came."

When asked what they called this music, one of the players came up with the term skiffle. Chas McDevitt started playing in a skiffle group in the '50s. He is the author of Skiffle: The definitive inside story. He says the word was first used in northern American cities to describe the sound created at informal gatherings in which musicians played homemade instruments, often with the goal of raising money to help someone pay his rent.

"All this is American origin, really. It happened in America in the '20s and '30s, the rent parties and things of that where people would pick any instruments that were hanging around. It harks back to those days," says McDevitt.

When Decca Records brought the Chris Barber Band into the studio to record their jazz, they also recorded some of Donegan's skiffle music.

One of the songs that Donegan performed, along with Chris Barber on bass and Beryl Bryden playing the washboard, was The Rock Island Line.

"It's probably the archetype example of Afro-American folk song. It's got everything in it. You know, from the recitee at the beginning, which you now call rap man, to a gradual accelerando as they say in music, an excitement and tension and also had a little story there with it. It's got everything you would want from a folk song."

Released as a single in 1956, it surprised everyone including Donegan by becoming a pop hit, rising on the British charts all the way to number nine. Donegan was suddenly a star. He left the jazz band and formed his own skiffle group. He went on a tour of America and played on the Perry Como Show.

Donegan followed it with a few more hits, but he says it was The Rock Island Line that changed his life. "It changed it absolutely from being a little banjo player sitting in the back of a jazz band to being the biggest star in England, really."

And it introduced skiffle music to a much wider audience. "It lifted the attention from just being a niche jazz situation into the general public's view and they Mr. and Mrs. Jones sitting at home listening to the radio had never heard any of this before. They don't go to jazz clubs. They didn't hear The Rock Island Line, didn't know anything about it. And suddenly here's this guy on the television and in the radio smashing on the guitar jumping up and down screaming. (They said) 'what the hell is that?' And the kids loved it. And so they all rushed out and bought $10 guitars and copied everything I did."

Chas McDevitt says it wasn't long before England was in the midst of a skiffle craze. "Once it was a hit everybody started buying guitars and playing. And it branched out from the jazz clubs to the coffee bars... and before you knew it there were thousands of groups everywhere playing skiffle, because it was so easy to play on just three chords, most of the songs were pretty simple. Everybody got a chance to play. You got the washboard player and some of the groups used tea chest bass or tub bass."

The skiffle craze lasted only about a year and a half, but its influence was far reaching. Many of the musicians who would become part of the British Invasion of the 1960s started out playing skiffle.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison first played together in a skiffle group called the Quarrymen and The Rock Island Line clearly had a place in their hearts. All three were recorded playing it at times when they were just fooling around. McCartney gave the tune his familiar polish during a rehearsal in the mid-'70s.

And John Lennon's sense of humor is evident in this home recording he made in his New York apartment in the late '70s.

Lennon and McCartney are just two of the many artists who have interpreted the song over the years. Soon after Donegan's version became a hit, noted train song singer Johnny Cash came out with a fine version of his own.

Satirist Stan Freberg made fun of the song's obscure lyrics in a bit he recorded with Peter Leeds. Freberg plays a singer auditioning the song for an impatient producer.

Blues singers Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, who once toured with Lead Belly, recorded a distinctive version of the Rock Island Line in the late '60s.

Harry Belafonte tried to give the song a kind of Vegas feel in a recording he made in the '70s.

A group of Los Angeles-based hipsters calling themselves the Knitters had some fun with the song in the mid-'80s.

Which brings us back to where we began this story, Little Richard's impassioned performance from 1988. And who knows how many future generations will find new inspiration in this old song?

Bethany Yarrow, the daughter of Peter Yarrow from the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary, found that young people get excited about folk music when they can relate to it. Yarrow is currently working on a collection of songs that she calls "Deep Folk."

"I'm trying to let people who's ears are only really accustomed to music today, trying to give them a way into these songs and a way to hear them... So I started delving back into folk music and trying to make evident the links between the history of American music and music how it is today," says Yarrow.

Yarrow says one of the old songs that she feels is linked to the music of today is The Rock Island Line.

"It has to do for me with the rhythmic. Today, a lot of the music, especially R&B and Hip Hop is all based on the rhythm, and that's what people dance to; that's what people move to. For me the rhythm of the train and the rhythm of work and the rhythm of The Rock Island Line kind of chugging along was what I really tried to tap into."