Midnight Special (song)
|Roud Folk Song Index 6364
Carl Sandburg - 1927
|Recorded by||Dave Cutrell, 1926
Sam Collins, 1927
Lead Belly, 1934
Paul McCartney, 1988
(see also other versions)
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
"Midnight Special" is a traditional folk song thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South. The title comes from the refrain, which refers to the passenger train Midnight Special and its "ever-loving light" (sometimes "ever-living light"):
Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me.
The song is historically performed in the country-blues style from the viewpoint of the prisoner and has been covered by many artists.
Get up in the mornin' when ding dong rings,
Look at table — see the same damn thing.
The first printed reference to the song itself was in a 1923 issue of Adventure magazine, a three-times-a-month pulp magazine published by the Ridgway Company. In 1927 Carl Sandburg published two different versions of "Midnight Special" in his The American Songbag, the first published versions.
The song was first commercially recorded on the OKeh label in 1926 as "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special" by Dave "Pistol Pete" Cutrell (a member of McGinty's Oklahoma Cow Boy Band). Cutrell follows the traditional song except for semi-comedic stanzas about McGinty and Gray and "a cowboy band":
In March 1929, the band, now Otto Gray and the Oklahoma Cowboys, recorded the song again, this time with the traditional title using only the traditional lyrics.
Sam Collins recorded the song commercially in 1927 under the title "The Midnight Special Blues" for Gennett Records. His version also follows the traditional style. His is the first to name the woman in the story, Little Nora, and he refers to the Midnight Special's "ever-living" light:
Yonder come a Little Nora. How in the world do you know?
I know by the apron and the dress she wears.
In 1934 Huddie William "Lead Belly" Ledbetter recorded a version of the song at Angola Prison for John and Alan Lomax, who mistakenly attributed it to him as the author. However, Ledbetter, for his Angola session, appears to have inserted several stanzas relating to a 1923 Houston jailbreak into the traditional song. Ledbetter recorded at least three versions of the song, one with the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel group (recorded for RCA at Victor Studio #2, New York City, June 15, 1940).
John and Alan Lomax, in their book, Best Loved American Folk Songs, told a credible story identifying the Midnight Special as a train from Houston shining its light into a cell in the Sugar Land Prison. They also describe Ledbetter's version as "the Negro jailbird's ballad to match Hard Times Poor Boy. Like so many American folk songs, its hero is not a man but a train." The light of the train is seen as the light of salvation, the train which could take them away from the prison walls. It is highly reminiscent of the imagery of such gospel songs as Let the Light from your Lighthouse Shine on Me. Carl Sandburg had a different view. He believed the subject of the song would rather be run over by a train than spend more time in jail.
The song, as popularized by Ledbetter, has many parallel lines to other prison songs. It is essentially the same song as "De Funiac Blues," sung and played by Burruss Johnson and recorded by John Lomax at the Raiford State Penitentiary in Florida on 2 June 1939. Many of the lines appear in prison work songs such as "Jumpin Judy," "Ain't That Berta," "Oh Berta" and "Yon' Comes de Sargent." These songs, including Ledbetter's "Midnight Special." are composite. They mix standard prison song verses indiscriminately. Many of these component pieces have become canonized in the blues idiom and appear in mutated forms regularly in blues lyrics.
Although later versions place the locale of the song near Houston, early versions such as "Walk Right In Belmont" (Wilmer Watts; Frank Wilson, 1927) and "North Carolina Blues" (Roy Martin, 1930) — both essentially the same song as "Midnight Special" — place it in North Carolina. Most of the early versions, however, have no particular location. Only one recording, collected by the Lomaxes at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, actually identifies the railroad operating the Midnight Special — the Illinois Central which had a route through Mississippi.
Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Odetta, Les Paul, The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, The Beatles, Burl Ives, Big Joe Turner, Bobby Darin, Johnny Rivers, Cisco Houston, Mungo Jerry, Van Morrison, Little Richard, Buckwheat Zydeco, Otis Rush, The Spencer Davis Group, Paul Evans, Lonnie Donegan, Eric Clapton, Long John Baldry, The Kentucky Headhunters, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others, have recorded the song. Jody Miller arranged her own version and included it on her first album Wednesday's Child is Full of Woe in 1963.
Paul McCartney has performed it numerous times (with The Beatles and solo). It was the closing song on his 1988 album Choba B CCCP and was performed on his 1991 appearance on MTV Unplugged, but was not included on the accompanying album.
ABBA recorded the song in 1975 as a part of a folk medley, along with "Pick a Bale of Cotton" and "On Top of Old Smokey". It was the B-side to their 1978 single "Summer Night City". The medley represents the group's only recording of material not written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus after their breakthrough with "Ring Ring" in 1973.
In popular culture
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- On The Andy Griffith Show episode "The Guitar Player Returns" (1961), Sheriff Taylor performs a duet of the song with Mayberry guitarist Jim Lindsay (James Best).
- Johnny Rivers' A newly recorded version was used as the theme song for the 1972-1981 NBC music-variety series of the same name, The Midnight Special.
- The song was sung by Harry Dean Stanton in Cool Hand Luke (1967).
- Creedence Clearwater Revival's version was featured in the film Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) as a motif during the prologue and epilogue.
- Matlock (TV series), episode "The Blues Singer" (1989), Andy Griffith performs the song with members of "The Bluesmen," which included Brownie McGhee, Joe Seneca and Ray Templin in the closing scene.
- Excerpts of the song are performed as a duet, and solo, by characters in the Australian soap Prisoner. The women of Wentworth prison join forces with the male prisoners at Woodridge with the intention of putting on a concert to raise funds for various charitable causes. The characters Lou Reynolds (Kevin Summers) and Margo Gaffney (Jane Clifton) are seen rehearsing the song in several episodes.
- The song (the basic tune, with special lyrics) is used twice in the 1946 Disney feature film Song of the South, as the plantation workers walk back and forth from the fields.
- An excerpt from the song is included in the beginning of a chapter from the novel American Gods.
- Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs, p. 71: "Sung in prisons all over the South, this song is probably of white origin."
- Oliver, Songster and Saints, p. 247: "An example of this form of nodal ballad is The Midnight Special, a prison song known in penitentiaries in many parts of the South. One stanza fragment which relates to the song was noted by Howard Odum about 1905 and published in his 1911 collection."
- Cohen, Long Steel Rail, p 479: "The earliest reference to the song I have found was in a letter to Robert W. Gordon, conducting the column 'Old Songs That Men Have Sung' in Adventure magazine. Dated August 3, 1923, the requested additional verses ..."
- Cohen, Long Steel Rail, p 479: "Carl Sandburg published two variants in his 1927 anthology, American Songbag, both without attribution."
- Russel, Country Music Records, p. 240: "Dave Cutrell; St. Louis, MO; May 1926; 9650-A; 'Pistol Pete's Midnight Special'; Despite the label credit to McGint'y Oklahoma Cow Boy Band as accompanists, the instrumentation is as shown. Rev. Okeh 45057 by McGinty's Oklahoma Cow Boy Band ..."
- Cutrell, "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special", British Archive of Country Music.
- Waltz, The Traditional Ballad Index: "McGinty's Oklahoma Cowboy Band (now led by Otto Gray), "The Midnight Special" (Vocalion 5337; c. 1929)."
- Discography of Sam Collins (musician) by Stefan Wirz.
- Collins, "Midnight Special Blues".
- Cohen, Long Steel Rail, p. 480: "McCormick's researchers do not prove that the song "The Midnight Special" originated at the time of this 1923 jailbreak. It seems more probable that Lead Belly and others set the details of that event into the framework of an earlier, well-established traditional song. The strongest evidence for this assumption is that the song appeared widely throughout the South within a very few years after 1923, and invariably in versions that did not mention any of the individual associated with the Houston events of 1923."
- Waltz, The Traditional Ballad Index: "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, Long Steel Rail, p 479: One version, collected from prisoners at the state prison at Parchman, Mississippi, has this chorus:
- "Midnight Special". Songfacts.com. Retrieved 2010-06-21.
- Companion book to Thank You For the Music Boxed Set, Polydor 1992, Cat.-No. 314 523 472-2
- "Official Bob Dylan Site |". Bobdylan.com. 2012-01-23. Retrieved 2012-03-22.
- Cohen, Norm. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. University of Illinois Press (2nd ed), 2000. ISBN 0-252-06881-5
- Oliver, Paul. Songsters and Saints: Vocal Tradition on Race Records. Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0-521-26942-3
- Collins, "Crying" Sam. "Midnight Special Blues". Jailhouse Blues, 14. Yazoo, CD, 1990.
- Lomax, John A. and Alan Lomax. American Ballads and Folk Songs. Dover Publications (reprint), 1994. ISBN 0-486-28276-7
- Otto Gray's Oklahoma Cowboys. "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special" by Dave Cutrell acc. by McGinty's Oklahoma Cow Boy Band. Early Cowboy Band. British Archive of Country Music, CD D 139, 2006.
- Russell, Tony. Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-513989-5
- Waltz, Robert B; David G. Engle. "The Midnight Special". The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotated Bibliography of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World. Hosted by California State University, Fresno, Folklore, 2007.