Rock Island Line (I), The
DESCRIPTION: "The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road, The Rock Island Line is the road to ride." About life in general, engineering on the Rock Island Line, and anything else that can be zipped into the song
AUTHOR: Clarence Wilson? (see NOTES) (heavily adapted by Huddie Ledbetter)
EARLIEST DATE: 1934 (recording, Kelly Pace et al)
KEYWORDS: railroading train nonballad floatingverses
FOUND IN: US(So)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Cohen-LSRail, pp. 472-477, "The Rock Island Line" (3 texts, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 102, "Rock Island Line" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Moses Asch and Alan Lomax, Editors, _The Leadbelly Songbook_, Oak, 1962, pp. 80-81, "Rock Island Line" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lead Belly, "Rock Island Line" (on ClassRR)
Kelly Pace & group of prisoners, "Rock Island Line" (AFS 248 A1, 1934; on LC8, LCTreas)
NOTES [684 words]: How much of this is genuinely "folk" is hard to tell. The earliest version collected [was] at Cummins Prison Farm (Arkansas) in 1934. The collection was made by John & Ruby Lomax; Lead Belly was their driver. Working from this and perhaps some floating material, Lead Belly created a song which he interspersed with patter about railroad work. The Weavers regularized this, and Alan Lomax added "new material"; one wonders if the prisoners would have recognized the result. - PJS, RBW
The core of the song performed by Lead Belly on his Library of Congress and early Asch recordings hews pretty closely to the version recorded by the prisoners; the Lomaxes' additions, if any, seem to have been minimal.
One of the verses found in revival versions is present [in the Pace recording on 1934], ("Jesus died to save me in all of my sin/Glory to God, we goin' to meet Him again"), as is the standard chorus.
Mr. Pace's name is spelled "Kelly" throughout LC8, but,"Kelley" on LC10. - PJS
Norm Cohen spelled it "Kelly," and Stephen Wade, who knew Pace, spells it "Kelly" as well; I'd consider that pretty definitive. Wade's full exposition is found in his book "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience."
Cohen also documents the evolution of the song, starting from an Arkansas work song. Lead Belly, as noted, probably learned it in 1934. When he recorded it for the Library of Congress in 1937, he used a subset of the Pace verses, with a line of patter about cutting trees; the song is still a work song.
When Lead Belly recorded it again in 1944 for Capitol, he had added a couple of verses not from Pace ("I may be right and I may be wrong"; "A-B-C double X-Y-Z") and had a new line of railroad patter. Soon after, he recorded it for Folkways, in what seems to have become the canonical version, ending with him telling the rainroad agent, "I fooled you."
It's unfortunate we don't have more information about how Lead Belly performed the song in concert in these years. It's quite a demonstration of "live fire" folk process, though. - RBW
But we do; Lead Belly's only known live recording, made some six months before his death in 1949, includes "The Rock Island Line." He performs the patter as he does on his Folkways recordings, along with the additional "A, B, C" verse from the Capitol 78. He introduces the piece as a work song. -PJS
Although most sources don't trace this earlier than Pace's work song version, it turns out that there is a back story. I first met it in Billy Bragg's book, Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Faber & Faber, 2017 (I use an Advance Reader Edition with no table of contents or index, so the pagination may be a little off), p. 8-15, has a story of this song's origin. He had his information from the Wade book cited above.
Bragg, following Wade, says that the actual Rock Island Line, in 1930, reported that its employee Clarence Wilson, a wiper, had composed a song "Buy Your Ticket Over Rock Island Lines," which was sung by his group "The Rock Island Colored Quartet." The chorus of that was clearly the same as this (although not identical to Lead Belly's version). Whether it was the actual original of this song I cannot prove; if the date is right, it doesn't leave much time to evolve into the Kelly Pace version. But who knows when Wilson started singing his version? The Lead Belly version, though, still appears to derive from Pace. And, because Pace's version was only two verses long, Lead Belly riffed on it -- in stages; his several recordings all use the same chorus, but he used different filler material, and gradually built up a story about the song; the evolution of his version is as described above.
Bragg also states that Lonnie Donegan's recording of this was what started the whole skiffle boom in Britain. Odd, since Donegan's recording is both vocally and instrumentally inferior to Lead Belly's -- but of course most hadn't heard Lead Belly. And perhaps the British had trouble with Lead Belly's pronunciation. As a northerner, I know I do, on some of his songs. - RBW
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