Well, here’s the story about the Rock Island Line. You see, the Rock Island Line is a good road, but you need to pay a toll unless you have certain goods, like livestock. So, if you can just trick the man at the toll gate that you have livestock, you can go on through without paying a cent.
That’s the premise of a timeless set of lyrics that have adapted, evolved and survived for over 80 years. Yes, 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 so da da da da da da da da da da da gosh this lyric is fast.
If you are a fan of American blues/folk music you definitely know “Rock Island Line,” a traditional piece recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and the blues man himself, Huddie Ledbetter (more famously known as Lead Belly). And, like is the case for most traditional songs, people often attribute song credits to the artist they first heard perform it. For the longest time, I thought Johnny Cash created the famous ditty. But I was educated. “Rock Island Line” has a history rooted in the prison gangs of Arkansas. Journey with me to find the first known versions of the song about the mighty good road.
Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar and extensive list of folk songs have made him one of the most revered early 20th century blues performers. He is also one of the first people to ever record “Rock Island Line.” There is controversy over the true foundations of this classic. What we do know is that folk/blues historians and preservers Alan and John Lomax heard the song at an Arkansas prison and recorded it. One version of the story has Alan and John Lomax hearing the song performed by convict composer Kelly Pace in 1934 at Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas. It then states that Lead Belly heard and rearranged the piece and released his own version in 1937.
But while that version is cited in Alan Lomax‘s book The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, published in 1964, an analysis of Lomax’s old recordings at the Library of Congress proves that the song was actually recorded earlier at another prison in Little Rock, Arkansas. This time, Lead Belly is actually with the Lomax’s when they hear the song being sung a cappella by a prison work gang. Lead Belly wrote down the lyrics, rearranged it and recorded this:
Do note the laid-back folk style of the recording. Keep in mind the initial narration also (because this changes). First off, Lead Belly gives an explanation of how the train stops and says that the man does not want to stop the train. This does not appear elsewhere. Lead Belly also describes more animals than other versions. Also, notice how Lead Belly makes no mention of the train speeding up prior to the song speeding up. But we do get the trickery of pig iron and this stays consistent. For those who have listened to newer versions, the lyric is certainly a bit different. The part that does stay constant is the hook:
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 of the Rock Island Line.
Before every chorus repetition, Lead Belly sings something religious. For example, in this version he says, Jesus died to save our sins Glory to God I’m gonna see Him again. This is important, because it changes. Let’s move now to perhaps the most famous recording of the song (no not Johnny Cash).
Lonnie Donegan pretty much started the mid-late 50′s British skiffle craze with his sped-up, slightly changed recording of Lead Belly’s version of the ”Rock Island Line.” Skiffle, a blend of blues, jazz, folk music usually played with homemade instruments like washboards and tea-chest bass, became incredibly popular in this span of time. The Beatles emerged out of John Lennon’s skiffle band The Quarrymen. Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Roger Daltrey, Robin Trower, David Gilmour all played skiffle music before forming rock bands and creating some of the greatest music ever in the 60s. Yes, skiffle had quite the influence despite its humorous name. Anyway, back to Donegan.
I have one problem with Donegan. He received considerable music publishing royalties from “Rock Island Line” by claiming the British copyright on the unregistered song which was considered to be in the public domain. I understand that this was obviously a “good” move, but he did nothing to credit Lead Belly and, come on, give some credit to the guy! But besides that, Donegan’s version did inspire most of the other versions of the song because he really sped it up and gave it the fun swing we all know.
Donegan actually tells it like a story. He reads it like it was from a book. His narration is a little different from Lead Belly’s, but it keeps the same concept. And, like in Lead Belly’s song, we are in New Orleans. Donegan lists off less livestock than Lead Belly and he spells out the story a little more. He then speeds the train up, unlike Lead Belly. Then we are all tricked again because he has pig iron. You know, I have to stop trusting people who say they have livestock when they clearly have pig iron.
In the recording you can hear the washboard and tea-chest bass and this just adds to the song’s awesomeness. Also, quite importantly, the hint of religion that Lead Belly put in the song was shifted slightly by Donegan. He does mention the Lord seeing him again, but instead of two other pre-chorus religious statements, Donegan has one and he says, “ABC WXYZ, The cats on the cover but he don’t see me.”
All the religion is out of the song when Cash gets his hand on it.
Johnny Cash recorded “Rock Island Line” in 1957, probably because the Rock Island Line is really a mighty good road. Cash tells a similar story. And, guess what, he fooled you. He had pig iron. All pig iron. Damn, three times!
Here’s where things change. After the usual chorus Cash sings two pre-chorus’ that are completely different than the other versions. They are:
Looked cloudy in the west and it looked like rain
Round the curve came a passenger train
North bound train on the southbound track
he’s alright a leavin’ but he won’t be back
Oh I may be right and I may be wrong
But you gonna miss me when I’m gone
Well the engineer said before he died
There were two more drinks that he’d like to try
The conductor said what could they be
A hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea
Pretty cool touch if you ask me. So, that’s the story of the Rock Island Line. And to think, if the toll gate man wasn’t so gullible, the song would have never existed…and our sly conductor would be out some money for the toll.