Song of the Week 38: Rock Island Line – Lead Belly


“I got live stock, I got live stock…”

This week sees us back on the railroad, lawbreaking, and then in and out of the chain gang, with a song that mimics the sound of train as it clickety clacks along the tracks.


Introducing the protagonist, “anti-hero” Lead Belly, AKA Huddie William Ledbetter, King of the 12 String Guitar, and boy did this man lead an interesting life! A convict with a short fuse, who sang his way out of prison, and according to Bob Dylan, on his Theme Time Radio Show: “one of the few ex-cons who recorded a popular children’s album.” He would find fame, but not fortune.

Lead Belly played his unusually large Stella 12 string with finger picks, using a thumb pick to provide the walking bass line, and occasionally to strum. His tuning is debated, but it´s generally thought to be a downtuned variation of standard tuning. He most likely tuned the strings relative to each other, so that the actually pitches shifted as the strings wore.

Pete Seeger was greatly influenced by his picking style and use of the 12 string, and it was because of him that Seeger adopted the instrument in the 1950s. He even released an instructional LP with a book using Lead Belly as an exemplar of technique. Lead Belly could also play piano, mandolin, harmonica violin and accordion. And he also had a way with words, which would come in handy for getting out of a tight spot…


Also featuring the supporting actors John Avery Lomax, an American musicologist and folklorist and his son, renowned collector Alan Lomax, who was mentioned in passing back in SOTW17 and star prisoner/singer Kelly Pace.


Finally, we´ll have a cameo by the villain-come-hero of this story, the English King of Skiffle, Lonnie Donegan, a major influence on British musicians of the 1960s, including four fellas from Liverpool called John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Huddie (pronounced Hugh-dee) Ledbetter was probably born in January 1888 (according to the 1900 and the 1930 United States Census) in Mooringsport, Louisiana, although he himself listed his birthday on the World War II draft registration as January 23 1889.

His family settled in Bowie County Texas when he was aged 5. His first instrument, bought for him by his uncle Terrell, was an accordion. By 1903, aged 14 or 15, he was already a “musicianer”, a singer of note. He performed in St. Paul´s Bottoms, an infamous red light district. He began to develop his own style of music there, having been exposed to a variety of musical influences from dance halls to saloons and brothels on Shreveport´s Fannin Street.

“He started pickin´up a little bit of speed, pickin´ up a little bit of steam…”

By the 1910 census, Lead Belly was living next door to his parents, with his first wife, the 17 year old Aletha Henderson, who would have been 15 at the time of their marriage. In his early 20s after fathering two children, he left home to wander around Texas and Louisiana eking out a living as a guitarist and sometime labourer.

The Titanic

He wrote “The Titanic” in 1912, noting the racial differences of his age. It was the first song he ever learned on the 12 string guitar, which would go on to become his signature instrument. He performed with Blind Lemon Jefferson during that time around Dallas, Texas.

Jack Johnson champion boxer

The Titanic was about Jack Johnson, a champion African-American boxer, who was supposedly denied passage on the Titanic because of his race. In actual fact, the boxer was denied entrance on another ship, not the Titanic.

“Jack Johnson tried to get on board. The Captain, he says, ´I ain´t haulin´ no coal!” Fare thee, Titanic! Fare thee well!” Lead Belly would leave out this line when singing for white audiences.

Huddie asserted that he was the world´s greatest cotton picker, railroad track liner, lover and drinker, not to mention 12 string player. Not everyone was of the same opinion, and since Huddie regularly found himself obliged to convince them, he frequently landed himself in trouble with the law.

In 1915, he was convicted of carrying a pistol and was sentenced to time in the Harrison County chain gang. He escaped and found work in nearby Bowie County under the alias Walter Boyd.

In January 1918, he was imprisoned for a second time, this time for killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman.

In 1918, he was locked up in Sugar Land, west of Houston, Texas, where he allegedly wrote one of my favourite songs Midnight Special, which talked about a train that ran near the prison.

In 1925, he was pardoned and released after serving the minimum of his 7 to 35 year sentence, after writing a song petitioning Governor Pat Morris Neff for his freedom. The song appealed to Neff´s strong religious beliefs. It was called Please, Governor Neff, Be good ´n´ kind, Have mercy on my great long time

Neff was convinced that Huddie had seen the error of his ways. Huddie´s good behaviour, which included playing guitar for guards and prisoners, convinced him of that fact, so he granted his wish and set him free from jail.

Here´s Huddie himself talking about writing the song:

The Life and Legend of Lead Belly

It was a testament to Ledbetter´s persuasive powers, since the governor had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons. In The Life and Legend of Lead Belly, Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell wrote of Governor Neff regularly bringing guests for Sunday picnics to hear Ledbetter perform.

By 1930, he was back inside, for attempted murder after he knifed a white man in a fight, reputedly in response to a racist jibe. He was discovered in 1933 by John Lomax and his son Alan, during their visit to Angola Prison Farm. They recorded him on portable aluminum disc equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned the following year, and recorded hundreds of his songs.

On August 1st 1934, he was released again. This time the Lomaxes appealed to Louisiana Governor Oscar K Allen, at Ledbetter´s request. The petition was on the other side of a recording of what would become his signature song, Goodnight Irene. Although the state prison records show that he was eligible for release for good behaviour, the Lomaxes and Lead Belly believed the record had sped up the process.

“We agreed to make a record of his petition on the other side of one of his favorite ballads, ‘Goodnight Irene’. I took the record to Governor Allen on July 1. On August 1 Leadbelly got his pardon. On September 1 I was sitting in a hotel in Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Leadbelly with his guitar, his knife, and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, ‘Boss, you got me out of jail and now I’ve come to be your man'” Alan Lomax

It´s believed he got his nickname due to his physical toughness and a play on words of his surname. During his second term inside, he was stabbed in the neck, which left a mean looking scar, which he would cover up with a bandana. Lead Belly, in response, almost killed his attacker with his own knife. It´s also claimed that he had been shot in the stomach with shotgun buckshot and survived. One more theory refers to his ability to drink moonshine liquor. While Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy thought it was because of his supposed habit of laying down (as if with a stomach weighed down by lead) in the shade, while the chain gang were supposed to be working, although it´s unlikely he ever said that to his face.

“I fooled you, I got iron, I got pig iron…”

With his release from prison it was neccessary to start earning money, or have his release cancelled, so John Lomax asked him to assist him in his folk song collecting trips around the South. At the time, John´s son, Alan was ill, so couldn´t travel with them.

Rock Island Line was first recorded by John Lomax twice in separate prisons in 1934, with help from Lead Belly. The second version was sung by Kelly Pace, a petty criminal, and fellow prisoners in the Arkansas State Prison. It was a tall tale about a train that´s so fast it arrives at its destination in Little Rock before it´s departure from Memphis. You can hear one of the inmates mimic the sound of the steam engine tooting.

“Well the train left Memphis at half past 9, well it made it back to Little Rock at 8.49.”

Have a listen to the original recording:

Here´s another recording John Lomax made with his wife, this time accompanied by his wife Ruby, but not Ledbetter. Pace was a free man at this time so wasn´t around to sing it. Here´s the 1939 recording with a photo featuring the singers Joe Battle, C.A. Story, Willie Johnson, John Denny, George Jones and Joe Green hard at work.

By 1942 Pace was back in prison, sentenced to 42 years for stealing a car, and would once again be the star of the show, performing  twenty six songs as a soloist or member of a larger group.

Meanwhile, Ledbetter could see the potential of the song. But it still had quite a way to go before it reached its destination. He would go on to develop it, and play a major role in making it famous. When he sang it, he´d begin with a spoken intro – a little different each time – explaining the background and the conversation between the train driver and the man at the toll gate. This recording of Lead Belly singing it with just his 12 string for accompaniment is my own personal favourite.

John Lomax took Lead Belly North on a pre-arranged lecture tour, where the self proclaimed King of de 12 String became something of a sensation. As always Huddie had quite a high opinion of himself and after hearing Cab Calloway in Harlem, he announced that he “could beat that man singin´ every time.”

Still quite the handful, his inclination towards violent resolution of conflicts, though now mellowed, would crop up again, this time with his mentor John Lomax.

The pair would fall out later that year, when after being threatened with a knife, Lomax decided he could no longer work with Lead Belly. He gave him and his then wife, Martha, the fare to travel back to Louisiana by bus, and also some of the money Leadbetter had earned in his three months performing. The rest was to be paid in instalments, on the pretext that Huddie would drink it all if given a lump sum. In Louisiana, Leadbetter successfully sued for the full amount, and secured release from the management contract with Lomax.

The argument between the two was bitter, and both sides felt hard done by. Strangely, in the midst of the legal quarrelling, Lead Belly wrote to John Lomax, suggesting they team up again. A book about Lead Belly published by the Lomaxes that year was a commercial failure.

In January 1936, Huddie returned to New York on his own, attempting a comeback. He performed twice a day at Harlem´s Apollo Theater in a live dramatic recreation of the Time Life newsreel, about his prison encounter with John Lomax, with Lead Belly wearing prison stripes.

Time Life magazine ran a three page long article, entitled “Lead Belly – Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel” in its April 19th 1937 issue. A full page colour photo (rare at the time) showed him sitting on grain sacks, with a bandana around his neck, playing his guitar and singing. It also shows a striking picture of his wife Martha Promise (identified as his manager) and a close up of his hands playing a guitar (with the caption “these hands once killed a man”). Another photo shows Texas Governor Patt Neff  “an early Lead Belly enthusiast, who, moved to leniency by a musical petition, pardoned the murderous minstrel.” The final picture is of the “ramshackle Texas State Penitentiary at Hunstville…” where “… he worked long and hard, was allowed to play his guitar Sundays to entertain the other inmates.” The article ends with “he… may well be on the brink of a new and prosperous period.”

You can have a look at the issue here:

Fame, yes, wealth no. His performances failed to catch on with the Harlem crowds, but he did become successful playing at leftist folk music concerts, where he explained his repertoire in the context of Southern Black Culture, taking his cue from the John Lomax college lectures he had participated in.

His children´s game songs became quite well known. He had previously been a regular singer at children´s birthday parties in the black community.


African American author Richard Wright (then editor of the Daily Worker and member of the Communist Party) wrote him up as a heroic figure. The two men became personal friends, though Leadbetter was apolitical, and if anything, a supporter or Wendel Wilkie, a centrist Republican candidate, who he wrote a campaign song for.

In 1939, Lead Belly was back in jail for assault after stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan. Alan Lomax dropped out of graduate school to raise money for his legal expenses, and took him under his wing. He appeared as a regular on the groundbreaking Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray CBS radio show, Back Where I Come From, which was broadcast live. At this time he also became a regular on New York City´s burgeoning folk music scene, and met and befriended Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woodie Guthrie and a young Pete Seeger among others, who were also regular performers on the same radio show.

During the first half of the decade he recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress and Moe Asch, and in California, recorded a string of sessions for Capital Records, and was the first American country blues musician to achieve success in Europe.

By 1949 he had a regular radio broadcast on WNYC on Sunday nights on Henrietta Yurchenko´s show, and began his first European tour with a trip to France, but fell ill before its completion, diagnosed with lateral sceloris or Lou Gehrig´s disease.


His final concert at the University of Texas was a tribute to his former mentor John A Lomax, who had died the previous year. His wife, Martha also performed with him, singing spirituals.

Lead Belly statue Shreveport

This runaway train finally reached its destination later that year. Lead Belly died in New York City and was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, 8 miles west of Blanchard, in Caddo Parish in Shreveport, where he is honoured with a life sized statue

Rock Island Line has been covered by anyone who´s anyone in the music business, but the version that kick-started the British Skiffle craze; the one that would inspire the young Beatles among others was the recording by Lonnie Donegan, which would become a world wide hit.

Lonnie “did nothing to credit Lead Belly as the author, even though he had simply copied Huddie’s entire arrangement” Harry Lewman Music

The recording featured Donegan, Chris Barber on double bass and Beryl Bryden on washboard, but because it was part of Chris Barber´s Jazz Band session for Decca Records, Donegan received no royalties on the recording. However, he did receive significant income from the publishing royalties from Rock Island, because he claimed the British Copywright on an unregistered song considered to be in the Public Domain.

Donegan was fond of telling the story that he received a sum of between £3 and £10 for the recording, in spite of it selling over one million copies world-wide, but Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax in the U.S. were quite annoyed that he never mentioned the publishing royalties, which he benefited greatly from.

Seeger, meanwhile, recorded a version a cappella, while chopping wood, to demonstrate the origins of the beat.

In 1964, The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, compiled and edited, with notes, by Alan Lomax, was published in Britain. On page 128, it includes the song Rock Island Line, with this 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.”

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, reveals that it was recorded by John A Lomax the previous month at a different prison in Little Rock, Arkansas, which makes his son´s theory that Pace is the original composer unlikely.

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.”

Here´s Huddie again, with a straight-up a capella, version with no intro, recorded with the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. It features some great harmony singing.

There are tonnes of versions up on youtube, including more by Lead Belly, so enjoy the journey. If you fancy a coffee or a beer, I´ll meet you in the lunch carraige/comments section.

“Well the Rock Island Line is a mighty good road…”

The song is based on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, which operated across the central states of the USA. Contrary to the lyric, although one route crossed through Louisiana, the route didn´t reach New Orleans. It became known as the Rock Island Line. Rock Island is a small town on the Illinois shore of the Mississippi River, and initially the track connected across the state to Chicago. However, the railroad´s ambition, from the name, to reach the Pacific was never even remotely achieved. The Rock Island went out of business finally in 1980 and some of its routes were taken over by other rail companies.

And the lyric, one of many variations:

That Rock Island Line train, coming back this a-way. A traindriver, he pulls up to the toll-gate and the man hollers nicely what all he had on board, and he said:

I got cows, I got horses, I got hogs, I got sheep, I got goats, I got all live stock, I got all live stock!

Well, they said, you’re all right boy, you don’t have to pay no toll, and they gonna let that train on by. So, he goes on through the toll gate and as he goes through, he starts pickin’ up a little bit of speed, pickin’ up a little bit of steam. He got on through and he turns to look back at the man, and he says:

I done fooled ya!
I fooled you!
I got pig iron,
I got pig iron!
I got pig iron

Cat’s in the cupboard and she can’t find me
Oh the Rock Island Line is a mighty fine line
Oh the Rock Island Line is the road to ride
If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you’re flyin’
Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line

I may be right, and I may be wrong
Lawd you gonna miss me when I’m gone
Oh the Rock Island Line is a mighty fine line
Oh the Rock Island Line is the road to ride
If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you’re flyin’
Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line

Jesus died to save our sins
Glory to God I’m gonna see Him again
Oh the Rock Island Line is a mighty fine line
Oh the Rock Island Line is the road to ride
If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you’re flyin’
Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line

Moses stood on the Red Sea shore
Smothin’ the water with a two-by-four
Oh the Rock Island Line is a mighty fine line
Oh the Rock Island Line is the road to ride
If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you’re flyin’
Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line

One thought on “Song of the Week 38: Rock Island Line – Lead Belly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s