Rock Island Line

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"Rock Island Line"
Song first recorded by John Lomax
Recorded1934
GenreBlues, folk
Length2-4 minutes
LabelAsch Recordings
WriterUnknown
 
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"Rock Island Line"
Song first recorded by John Lomax
Recorded1934
GenreBlues, folk
Length2-4 minutes
LabelAsch Recordings
WriterUnknown

"Rock Island Line" is an American blues/folk song first recorded by John Lomax in 1934 as sung by inmates in an Arkansas State Prison, and later popularized by Lead Belly.[1] Many versions have been recorded by other artists, most significantly the world-wide hit version in the mid-1950s by Lonnie Donegan. The song is ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.

The chorus to the old song reads:

The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road
The Rock Island Line is the road to ride
The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road
If you want to ride you gotta ride it like you find it
Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line

The verses tell a humorous story about a train operator who smuggled pig iron through a toll gate by claiming all he had on board was livestock.

History[edit]

The earliest known version of "Rock Island Line" was written in 1929 by Clarence Wilson, a member of the Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet, a singing group made up of employees of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad at the Biddle Shops freight yard in Little Rock, Arkansas. The lyrics to this version are largely different to the version that later evolved and became famous, with verses describing people and activities associated with the yard.[2]

The first audio recording of the song was made by John A. Lomax at the state prison in Tucker, Arkansas on 29 September 1934. Lead Belly accompanied Lomax to the prison. This version retains some lyrical features of the 1929 version, but also features key elements of the "classic" version. A similar version was recorded by Lomax in October 1934 at Cummins Prison Farm in Lincoln County, Arkansas, performed by a group of singers led by Kelly Pace.[3]

In 1964, The Penguin Book Of American Folk Songs, compiled and with notes by Alan Lomax, was published. It includes "Rock Island Line" with the following footnote:

John A. Lomax recorded this song at the Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas, in 1934 from its convict composer, Kelly Pace. The Negro singer, Lead Belly, heard it, rearranged it in his own style, and made commercial phonograph recordings of it in the 1940s. One of these recordings was studied and imitated phrase by phrase, by a young English singer of American folk songs [referring to Lonnie Donegan], who subsequently recorded it for an English company. The record sold in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and England, and this Arkansas Negro convict song, as adapted by Leadbelly, was published as a personal copyright, words and music, by someone whose contact with the Rock Island Line was entirely through the grooves of a phonograph record.[4]

According to Harry Lewman Music,

Lead Belly and John and Alan Lomax supposedly first heard it from [a] prison work gang during their travels in 1934/35. It was sung a cappella. Huddie sang and performed this song, finally settling on a format where he portrayed, in song, a train engineer asking the depot agent to let his train start out on the main line.[5]

Lonnie Donegan's recording, released as a single in late 1955, signalled the start of the UK "skiffle" craze. This recording featured Donegan, Chris Barber on double bass and washboard player (Beryl Bryden), but as it was part of a Chris Barber's Jazz Band session for Decca Records, Donegan received no royalties from Decca for record sales, beyond his original session fee.[citation needed]

Pete Seeger recorded a version a cappella while he was chopping wood, to demonstrate its origins.[5]

Versions[edit]

"Rock Island Line" has been recorded by:

1930s – 1940s[edit]

1950s[edit]

1960s[edit]

1970s[edit]

1980s[edit]

1990s[edit]

2000s[edit]

Railroad associations[edit]

The song is based on the name of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, which operated an extensive network across the central states of the USA, Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska, Chicago to Texas, and reached Minneapolis, Minnesota, Memphis, Tennessee, and other points. Contrary to the song, although a minor route penetrated northern Louisiana, it did not reach New Orleans. Like a number of railroads based in Chicago with lengthy formal names, it was generally known by a shortened nickname, the "Rock Island", which name was painted on the locomotives and elsewhere. Rock Island is a small town on the Illinois shore of the Mississippi River, and the initial rail route connected it across the state to Chicago. The railroad's ambition, from its name, to reach the Pacific was never even remotely attained. The Rock Island was a rail pioneer from the 1850s, and was long known for carrying on through financial adversity challenging better-structured rival companies in its territory. It finally went out of business in 1980. Some of its former routes were purchased and are now run by other rail companies.

See also[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Jeremy Price, "Lonnie Donegan, « Rock Island Line » et la corne d’abondance", Volume!, n° 7-2, Nantes, Éditions Mélanie Seteun, 2010.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Rock Island Line (I), The". Csufresno.edu. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  2. ^ Wade, Stephen (2012). The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. pp. 49–50. 
  3. ^ Wade, Stephen (2012). The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. p. 55. 
  4. ^ Lomax, Alan, ed. (1964). The Penguin Book Of American Folk Songs. Penguin. p. 128. 
  5. ^ a b "Rock Island Line". Hlmusic.com. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  6. ^ Unterberger, Richie (1997-10-21). "Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings - Various Artists : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  7. ^ [1][dead link]
  8. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Rock Island Line [Naxos] - Leadbelly : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  9. ^ "The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip". Memory.loc.gov. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  10. ^ Price, 2010.
  11. ^ Ruhlmann, William. "Greatest Hits - The Weavers : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  12. ^ Jurek, Thom. "1956-1960 - Johnny Horton : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  13. ^ "Rock Island Line - Johnny Cash : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  14. ^ "Scott H Biram". Scottbiram.com. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  15. ^ Widran, Jonathan (2001-08-28). "Looking for a Home - Odetta : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  16. ^ "Family Dance - Dan Zanes : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. 2002-07-30. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  17. ^ Jurek, Thom. "Rock Island - Bethany Yarrow : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  18. ^ "Bandwagon - Eleven Hundred Springs : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. 2004-07-27. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  19. ^ "Live at the Elephant - Peter Donegan Band : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. 2006-10-30. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  20. ^ "On The Short Rows - Kickin Grass : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 

External links[edit]