Rock Island Line
|"The Rock Island Line"|
|Song by Cummins State Farm inmates|
|Recorded||Cummins State Farm, Lincoln County, Arkansas, October 1934|
|Genre||American folk music|
|Label||Archive of Folk Culture (no. AFS 248)|
|Producer(s)||John A. Lomax|
"Rock Island Line" is an American folk music song. Ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, it appeared as a spiritual as early as 1929. The first recorded performance of "Rock Island Line" was by inmates of the Arkansas Cummins State Farm prison in 1934. Many artists subsequently recorded it, including popular renditions by Lead Belly and Lonnie Donegan.
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 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 folklorist and musicologist John A. Lomax at the Tucker, Arkansas prison farm on September 29, 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 State Farm prison 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 [Lead Belly] 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 Beryl Bryden on washboard. Pete Seeger recorded a version a cappella while he was chopping wood, to demonstrate its origins.
"Rock Island Line" has been recorded by:
- Prison immates in Arkansas – Recorded by John Lomax in Arkansas twice in 1934. The October 1934 recording, by Kelly Pace and a group of convicts, was released on the compilation album A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (released 1997)
- Lead Belly – Recorded in Washington, D.C. on June 22, 1937, the first of many recordings he made during his career, the last being live at the University of Texas at Austin on June 15, 1949.
"Rock Island Line" appears on the Lead Belly compilation Rock Island Line: Original 1935-1943 Recordings (released 2003), among many others.
- Arkansas prisoners – Also recorded by John Lomax in 1939. This performance is included with his 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.
- George Melly (single 1951) – 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).
- Lonnie Donegan (single 1955) – In July 1954, Donegan recorded this fast-tempo version of "Rock Island Line", with Chris Barber's Jazz Band. It was the first debut record to be certified gold in the UK, where it helped trigger the skiffle craze. The single reached the top ten in the US, peaking at number eight. This record is quoted by various later famous musicians as a catalyst for their musical development.
- Bobby Darin (single 1956) – Bobby Darin's debut single was a 1956 recording of "Rock Island Line", with "rhythm accompaniment directed by Jack Pleis" for Decca Records.
- Don Cornell (single 1956) – Recorded for Coral, an early American cover version following the success of Lonnie Donegan's record in the US charts.
- Stan Freberg (single 1956) – This was a typical Freberg parody of Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line", following the latter's American chart success. Issued on Capitol, it was the B-side to Freberg's parody of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel".
- Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957) Cash adds two verses to the song, one about a train coming down the track and the second about an engineer indicating two beverages he wants to try before he dies: "a hot cup of coffee and a cool glass of tea."
- Milt Okun – America's Best Loved Folk Songs, Baton BL1203 (1957)
- Snooks Eaglin – New Orleans Street Singer, SFW CD 40165 (1959)
- The Brothers Four – The Brothers Four Song Book, CS8497 (1961)
- Ramblin Jack Elliot – "Young Brigham" (1968)
- Harry Belafonte – On Belafonte, later released on the CDs All Time Greatest Hits Vol. 3 and 36 All-Time Greatest Hits.
- Johnny Cash (single 1970) – from the album Rock Island Line (1970),, the single reached number 93 (US Singles Chart), and number 35 (US Country chart). Cash previously recorded the song in 1957.
- Whiskey Howl – A cappella version by the Toronto blues band on their 1972 eponymous album
- John Lennon – Acoustic and unreleased version found on the bootleg, The Lost Lennon Tapes
- George Harrison and Paul Simon – Acoustic version performed during rehearsal for November 20, 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live
- Graham Bonnet – On the album Graham Bonnet (1977)
- The Knitters – Poor Little Critter on the Road (1985)
- The Washington Squares – The Washington Squares (1987)
- Little Richard & Fishbone – Folkways: A Vision Shared—A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly (1988)
- Devil in a Woodpile (with Jane Baxter Miller) (single 1999) – On the album Poor Little Knitter on the Road - A Tribute to the Knitters
- The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band – The Gospel Album (2007)
- Some times identified as "Kelly Pace and Prisoners"
- "Rock Island Line (I), The". Csufresno.edu. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- Wade, Stephen (2012). The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. pp. 49–50, 55.
- Lomax, Alan, ed. (1964). The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs. Penguin. p. 128.
- "Rock Island Line". Hlmusic.com. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- Unterberger, Richie. "Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings - Various Artists : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
-  Archived December 8, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
- Ruhlmann, William. "Rock Island Line [Naxos] - Leadbelly : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- "The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip". Memory.loc.gov. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- Price, 2010.
- Ruhlmann, William. "Greatest Hits - The Weavers: Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- Jurek, Thom. "1956-1960 - Johnny Horton : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- "Rock Island Line - Johnny Cash : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- Widran, Jonathan. "Looking for a Home - Odetta : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- "Family Dance - Dan Zanes : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- "Bandwagon - Eleven Hundred Springs : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- "Rock Island Line" on Allmusic
- Oldielyrics.com, Lonnie Donegan's version of "Rock Island Line"
- A Mighty Good Road: Minnesota Public Radio
- Traditional Music and Spoken Word Catalog, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress