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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
John Lomax recorded "Rock Island Line" sung by prisoners in Arkansas twice in 1934. The October 1934 recording, by Kelly Pace and a group of convicts was released on the compilation albumA Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (released 1997)
Lead Belly recorded the song at Washington, D.C. on June 22, 1937, the first of many recordings of it he made during his career, the last being live at the University of Texas on June 15, 1949. "Rock Island Line" appears in the Lead Belly compilationRock Island Line: Original 1935-1943 Recordings (released 2003), amongst many others.
John Lomax recorded "Rock Island Line" sung by prisoners in Arkansas in 1939. It is included in the recordings made during his 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.
Recorded for the small British Jazz label Tempo (which was subsequently acquired by Decca) under the name "The George Melly Trio", and featuring Johnny Parker on piano and Norman Dodsworth on drums (both members of Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band with whom Melly was the singer). Although lyrically similar, Melly's version of "Rock Island Line" is different from any version by Leadbelly, or indeed any other version.
Bobby Darin's debut single was a 1956 recording of "Rock Island Line", with 'rhythm accompaniment directed by Jack Pleis', featuring "Timber" (written by Darin, Don Kirshner and George M. Shaw) on the B-side. It was released on the Decca Records label. For his first television performance (on Stage Show), he sang this song with the lyrics written on the palms of his hands as there were no cue cards provided for him.
Recorded for Coral, an early American cover version following the success of Lonnie Donegan's record in the US charts. Whilst on tour in Britain in 1956, Cornell and Donegan met, with the result that Cornell's manager became Donegan's American representative.
This was a typical Freberg "send up" of Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line", following the latter's chart success in the USA. Issued on Capitol, it was the B-side to Freberg's parody of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel", which became an American chart hit.
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.