Midnight Special, The

DESCRIPTION: "Let the Midnight Special shine its light on me; Let the Midnight Special shine its ever-loving light on me." The prisoner describes how he was arrested, the difficult conditions in prison, and a visit from his girlfriend
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1926 (recording, Dave Cutrell)
KEYWORDS: prison hardtimes warning crime police train
REFERENCES (15 citations):
Cohen-LongSteelRail, pp. 478-484, "The Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Randolph 292, "The Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Moore/Moore-BalladsAndFolkSongsOfTheSouthwest 171, "The Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Sandburg-TheAmericanSongbag, pp. 26-27, "The Midnight Special"; 217, "Midnight Special" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Lomax/Lomax-FolkSongUSA 91, "The Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax/Lomax-AmericanBalladsAndFolkSongs, pp. 71-75, "The Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Jackson-WakeUpDeadMan, pp. 70-71, "Yon' Come Roberta" (1 text, 1 tune. The song lacks a chorus and the tune is "completely different," according to Jackson, but most of the lyrics belong here); pp. 92-93, "Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune, unusually full)
Botkin-TreasuryOfAmericanFolklore, pp. 908-909, "The Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen-AmericanFolkSongsARegionalEncyclopedia2, pp. 528-529, "Midnight Special" (1 text)
Coleman/Bregman-SongsOfAmericanFolks, pp. 112-113, "The Midnight Special" (1 short ext, 1 tune)
Arnett-IHearAmericaSinging, p. 142-143, "Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Seeger-AmericanFavoriteBallads, p. 55, "Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 71, "Midnight Special" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Moses Asch and Alan Lomax, Editors, _The Leadbelly Songbook_, Oak, 1962, p. 71, "Midnight Special" (1 text, 1 tune)

Roud #6364
Jesse Bradley, "Midnight Special" (AFS 218 A1, 1934)
Dillard Chandler, "Gastony Song" (on Chandler01, DarkHoll)
Bill Cox, "The Midnight Special" (Banner 32891/Melotone M12797/Oriole 8271/Perfect 12942/Romeo 3271/Conqueror 8230, 1933; Panachord (UK) 25626, 1934) (See Notes)
Dave Cutrell (known as "Pistol Pete") with McGinty's Oklahoma Cowboy Band, "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special" (OKeh 45057, 1926); McGinty's Oklahoma Cowboy Band (now led by Otto Gray), "The Midnight Special" (Vocalion 5337; c. 1929)
Folkmasters, "The Midnight Special" (on Fmst01)
Frank Jordan & Group, "Midnight Special" (AFS 619 A1, 1936)
Lead Belly, "Midnight Special" (on ClassRR)
Leadbelly & the Golden Gate Quartet, "The Midnight Special" (Victor 27266, 1941; rec. 1940)
Pete Seeger, "The Midnight Special" (on PeteSeeger18) (on PeteSeeger26) (on PeteSeeger43)
Pete Seeger & Big Bill Broonzy, "The Midnight Special" (on BroonzySeeger1) (on BroonzySeeger2)
[Wilmer] Watts & [Frank] Wilson, "Walk Right In Belmont" (Paramount 3019, 1927; on TimesAint04)
Ernest Williams, "Midnight Special" (AFS CYL-11-5, 1933)

cf. "Jumpin' Judy"
cf. "Mississippi Jail House Groan" (floating lyrics)
cf. "Early in the Morning (IV -- prison song)" (lyrics)
cf. "The Woolston Ferry" (primary tune)
NOTES [238 words]: I seem to recall a legend that, should the light of the Midnight Special shine on a convict, he would soon be freed. I can'r remember where I heard this, though. I've more recently found this mentioned in Sing Out magazine, Volume 37, #2 (1992), pp, 54, but I'm sure I heard it somewhere else. That issue of Sing Out refers to another legend, in which highly favored convicts were allowed visits from prostitutes brought in on a special train. (The problem with this, of course, is that someone had to pay the prostitutes, so I rather doubt it.)
Carl Sandburg, on the other hand, believes that the song refers to suicide: That the convict would rather be dead under the wheels of the train than spend another twenty years in prison.
Cohen quotes Mack McCormick to the effect that several versions show localization to an unsuccessful 1923 jailbreak, but offers evidence that the song, or at least pieces of it, are much older. The version he prints, "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special" by Dave Cutrell, has several verses not heard in the common Leadbelly version. - RBW
The Bill Cox recording consists of floating train-song verses, e.g., "I've rode the Southern, I've Rode the L&N." It does have a chorus "Let the Midnight Special shine its light on me/Way out on that old I.C.," so I place it with the other versions of the song. Oh, the I.C. Is the Illinois Central railroad, which ran through Mississippi to New Orleans. -PJS
Last updated in version 5.0
File: R292

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