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Railroad Songs


01 Nickel Plate Road #759

Sounds of Steam Railroading (The High Iron Company/Semaphore Records/O. Winston Link Railway Productions)

02 Alex Hood and His Railroad Boys - L & N Rag (2:43)

Music of Kentucky Vol. 1 (Yazoo)

03 Byron Parker and his Mountaineers with Snuffy Jenkins - Peanut Special (2:43)

The Railroad in Folksong (RCA Vintage Series)

04 DeFord Bailey - Pan American Blues (2:50)

Nashville: The Early String Bands, Vol. 2 (Morning Star)

05 John 'Black Sampson' Gibson - Track-lining song (1:37)

Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia (Rounder)

06 Cryin' Sam Collins - Yellow Dog Blues (3:00)

Cryin' Sam Collins and His Git-Fiddle (Origin Jazz Library)

07 Lonnie Coleman - Old Rock Island Blues (2:55) * [ see note below ]

Country Blues Classics, Vol. 3 (Blues Classics)

08 Woody Guthrie with Cisco Houston - Farmer-Labor Train (2:51)

Hard Travelin': The Asch Recordings, Vol. 3 (Smithsonian Folkways)

09 Uncle Dave Macon & Sam McGhee - Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train (3:11)

Hard Times Come Again No More Vol. 2 (Yazoo)

10 Rev. J. M. Gates - You Belong to That Funeral Train (3:10)

Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 2 (Document)

11 Unidentified prisoner - Train calls (0:46)

Railroad Songs and Ballads (Rounder)

*Correction: I'd like to apologize to the listener for a series of inaccuracies I let spew concerning this track. First of all, the Rock Island Line was not a mere short line but was, by the end of the 19th century, one of the nation's biggest railroad conglomerates, the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. It did in fact run in Texas and Louisiana, but not from one to the other. I had in mind another Lead Belly song of another train, nicknamed the Shorty George, which ran past the Central State Farm in Sugarland, Texas, bringing women visitors to the prisoners on weekends.

I thought of 'Shorty George' because both it and Lead Belly's 'Rock Island Line' have their origins in state pens. Lead Belly did not learn 'Rock Island Line' in his native Louisiana, and nor was it a string band rendition he heard. Perhaps because of Coleman's 1929 banjo-with-guitar-accompaniment version I had declared that Lead Belly's had similar roots (and many songs in Lead Belly's repertoire did have string band and minstrelsy roots), but he in fact learned it in Gould, Arkansas, at the State Farm Penitentiary. It was there in 1934 that John A. and Alan Lomax, with Lead Belly in tow, recorded the now-famous version of 'Rock Island Line' as a work song from a group of prisoners, led by a man named Kelly Pace. The song might have originated at the State Farm in Gould, but there's no way to know for sure. One Rock Island line ran south from Little Rock to Eunice, Louisiana, and stopped in Fordyce, Arkansas, fifty or so miles west of Gould; another, the Choctaw Express, ran from Memphis through Little Rock on its way to Amarillo. Yet another, the Cotton Belt, provided service back and forth from Little Rock to Memphis. All Pace's version tells us is that somehow 'the train left Memphis at half past nine / Made it back to Little Rock at 8:49.' Regardless, the work song owes nothing to Coleman's blues. (For what it's worth, the Rock Island didn't run to Atlanta, where Coleman was from.)

"Baby if anyone should ask you who composed this song

Just tell 'em Lonnie Coleman done been to your town and gone."

One final twist is that a version of "Rock Island Blues," in fact older than Coleman's "Old Rock Island Blues," was circulating in Memphis in 1927, first recorded by Furry Lewis - the only similarity, however, is the first line: "I got the Rock Island Blues / Waiting on the Rock Island train." -- NS


Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone


Traditional, folk, vernacular, endangered, and extinct music from America and elsewhere. Hosted by Nathan Salsburg, an archivist, producer, and writer based in Louisville, Kentucky.

He has worked for the The Alan Lomax Archive since 2000, for which he currently serves in the capacities of production manager, photo and video archivist, and general digital catalog editor. Salsburg maintains an index of online vernacular music resources at his blog,, contributes occasional music writing to the Louisville Eccentric Observer and the Other Music weekly update, and is curator of Twos & Fews, a vernacular music imprint in collaboration with Chicago's Drag City label.