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The song
By Jim Bickal
Minnesota Public Radio
October 15, 2002

In 1988 David Kahne of Columbia Records was hired to produce a song for an album and video that would pay tribute to the music of folk legends Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. The song, Lead Belly's Rock Island Line was one that Kahne knew well.

"I knew the song because I used to play it in a folk group that I had while I was in college," he recalled.

The singer that he was paired with was someone that Kahne had admired but never worked with before -- rock legend Little Richard. Kahne says he was excited about the collaboration because it was a chance to work with one of rock and roll's defining figures.

"To me he was the first guy that I heard that just sang; that there was blues and gospel in what he did, but he sang with a kind of abandon that felt like it was rock 'n roll. He meant a lot to me when I was little. I used to listen to his records and had never heard a sound like that before. He was just so raging. I just thought it was amazing."

That amazing energy was the inspiration for Kahne's arrangement of the Rock Island Line. At the time Kahne was working primarily with young, emerging artists and that's who he brought in to play behind Little Richard on the song.

"I didn't really hire studio musicians; just people from different bands that I knew like Fishbone. Actually the drummer from Fishbone is the guy I got to play drums on it. And they were all pretty aggressive bands and I knew that Richard, obviously, he was a big rock guy so I just went in an aggressive way as I could without making the song sound stupid or like a punk song or something," Kahne said.

Little Richard was 55 years old at the time of the recording and had been more or less retired from the music business for a number of years, devoting most of his energy to his work as an evangelical minister. Kahne recalls that Richard was a little apprehensive at first.

"When he came in, I don't know if nervous is the right word, but he was just being very cautious, and he sat at the console and listened to the song over and over again.

"So I grabbed a microphone and I started singing the song standing next to him, and then I gave him a microphone and he started singing along gradually and then pretty soon he was just singing the whole song, and then he had a great time because he was really going off; you know he hit some really cool notes in there."

In an interview for a Showtime documentary about the making of the record, Little Richard described the atmosphere in the recording studio that day.

"Rock Island Line was a beautiful song for me to record. And when I got here and we got together on that thing, I tell you it was fireball. It was living flame. It was a burning fire," he said.

By fanning the flames of this old American folk song, Little Richard demonstrates it enduring vitality. His passionate performance adds another chapter to the story of the Rock Island Line.

Little Richard is one of many artists who have been inspired by the Rock Island Line, a song that came out of a southern prison and evolved along with the music of the 20th century.

While we know where the Rock Island Railroad came from, the exact origin of the song is a mystery.

There's no official connection between the railroad and the song. It was not written as a jingle or for publicity. And there's no record of when or where it was conceived. What we do know is that it's a traditional work song, the kind sung by African-Americans in the south; the kind that was passed from singer to singer orally.

Music historian Charles Wolfe says that while nothing is certain there are clues to suggest it originated around the beginning of the 20th century.

"But we do know this: that there was a Rock Island Railroad line that ran through Arkansas to Memphis and that they built a big line to do that. And it seems to me quite likely that this song might have originated as people worked in the heavy forests in the area of southern Arkansas, as they worked building the line toward Memphis. That this song could have originated that far back," says Wolfe.