Rock Island Line: Leadbelly, Lonnie Donegan, and John Lennon

Hello there!  In this week’s blog we consider the song Rock Island Line.  This is originally a folk-blues song that was later converted to a British folk-pop song.  We will start with a version by Leadbelly, and then discuss covers of that song by Lonnie Donegan and John Lennon.

Leadbelly and Rock Island Line:

The song Rock Island Line has a fascinating history.  The first known version of the song
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.

Apparently the original lyrics to this song describe people and activities associated specifically with that railroad yard.

Musicologist John Lomax

Musicologist John Lomax

The first recorded version of this song was made by the great musicologist John Lomax, shown in the photo at left.  In fall 1934, he traveled to Arkansas to make recordings of regional folk songs and spirituals.  In Sept. 1934, Lomax heard the song performed at the state prison in Tucker, Arkansas.

By this time the lyrics had been transformed and it had become a work song, performed by convicts as they carried out chores, or on road gangs.  Then in Oct. 1934, Lomax recorded another version at Cummins Prison Farm in Lincoln Country, AK.  This version was sung by a group of prisoners and led by Kelly Pace.

Here is Lomax’ recorded version of Rock Island Line.

The song is clearly a “work song,” as the cadence would be appropriate for a repetitive activity such as chopping wood or breaking rocks.  Furthermore, the chorus has now evolved to the “classic” lyrics for the song.

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 song Rock Island Line describes a mythical fast train.  In fact, it is reportedly so fast that it leaves Memphis at “half past nine,” but arrives at Little Rock at an earlier time, “8:49.”

The folk singer Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Leadbelly, accompanied Lomax in September 1934 and heard the song performed by prisoners at Tucker State Prison.

Leadbelly further transformed the tune into a “train song,” and later released it on his albums.  In Leadbelly’s version, the Rock Island Line train initially stops at a toll depot, where the engineer is asked what the train is carrying.  The engineer responds by sending whistle messages that signify he is carrying “all livestock,” which would not be subject to a tariff.

Leadbelly’s song slowly but surely increases in pace as the train picks up speed.  In one version of the song, the train engineer later informs the depot agent that he has been fooled, as the train is in fact carrying “all pig iron.”

Huddie Ledbetter was one of the great folk and blues singers of the past century.  He was featured in our blog post regarding the song “Gallows Pole.”  Here, we will briefly review his life and career.

Mr. Ledbetter was a black musician who lived primarily in Louisiana and Texas.  He performed under his nickname Lead Belly; however, this is often shortened to Leadbelly, and we adopt this variant on his professional name.

Although he played several instruments, including accordion, piano, mandolin and violin, Leadbelly is best known for his work on the 12-string guitar.  His guitar work proved to be inspirational to many folk singers, particularly Pete Seeger, who co-authored an instructional book on 12-string guitar playing in the style of Leadbelly.

Although Leadbelly wrote a number of original songs, he is best known for his versions of several traditional songs.  In fact, Leadbelly’s adaptations of many of these folk songs became the ‘standard’ version that would subsequently be covered by scores of musicians.  In addition to Rock Island Line, other examples include such classics as Goodnight, Irene; Midnight Special; and Cotton Fields Back Home.

Embed from Getty Images

As you can see from the photo above, Leadbelly was a large and imposing figure.  His booming voice, accompanied by a larger-than-normal Stella 12-string guitar, gave his songs a powerful impact.  Unfortunately, Leadbelly was frequently in trouble with the law, and he served several prison terms for various offenses, in at least two cases for stabbing a man.

During his stretches in prison, Leadbelly frequently played for his fellow inmates and participated in concerts.  In 1933 he was ‘discovered’ by the noted folklorists John and Alax Lomax in Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm.  In 1934 Leadbelly was released from prison after the Lomaxes delivered a petition to the governor, accompanied by Leadbelly’s recording of Goodnight, Irene.

After Leadbelly was released from prison, John Lomax brought him on tours with other folk singers.  Although Lomax had good intentions, significant friction developed between him and Leadbelly.  Lomax wanted to capitalize on Leadbelly’s past life as a convict, so asked him to perform dressed in prison garb.  The proud Mr. Ledbetter bristled at being asked to appear on stage in such a manner.

Unfortunately, much of Leadbelly’s subsequent publicity appeared to dwell on his past brushes with the law and his dangerous persona.  For example, Life magazine ran an article in August, 1937 with the cringe-worthy title Lead Belly – Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel.  The article showed a picture of Leadbelly’s hands strumming a guitar with the caption ‘these hands once killed a man.’

Like many folk singers of his day, Leadbelly made very little money from his recordings, and had to rely primarily on touring for his income.  After yet another stint in prison, Leadbelly moved to New York where he became a regular fixture at concerts with artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.  He appeared on a nationally-syndicated radio program produced by Alan Lomax, and he recorded several folk albums.

In 1949 Leadbelly began a tour of Europe, but he had to return to the U.S. when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He subsequently died late in 1949 and is buried in Louisiana.  In 1988, Leadbelly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their `Early Influence’ category.

Lonnie Donegan and Rock Island Line:

Our next artist has the distinction of playing a major role in convincing both John Lennon and Paul McCartney to enter the field of pop music.  In fact, he and his career had a major impact in convincing an entire generation of British artists to become musicians.

This man was an important inspirational figure for the following artists, among many others: Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page; The Who’s Roger Daltrey; Queen’s Brian May; blues singer Van Morrison; Graham Nash of the Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash; and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.

“Wow!” you might say.  “To be a role model for all of these legendary artists, this guy must have been a fantastically talented musician.”

Well, not really.  Lonnie Donegan was the first British pop artist to hit the Top Ten in the U.S. Billboard pop charts.  Furthermore, he had more than 30 top ten records in Great Britain.  However, as we will see, Donegan’s music was more impressive for its popular appeal than for any technical achievements in music.

Anthony James Donegan was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1931.  His father was a classical violinist who had played with the Scottish National Orchestra.  Donegan took the stage name Lonnie Donegan in honor of blues musician Lonnie Johnson.

Below is a publicity photo of Lonnie Donegan from his first Australian tour in 1960.

Embed from Getty Images

In the early 50s, Donegan joined the group Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, where he was a vocalist and played guitar and banjo for the group’s Dixieland repertoire.  While the other members of the band took an intermission, Donegan and two other band members provided what they called a “skiffle break.”

The word “skiffle” had a varied history.  In Britain, “skiffle” was a slang term used when someone messed up an activity.  In the U.S., in the 20s and 30s the term “skiffle” was applied to country-blues music, particularly when associated with jug bands and other groups that utilized home-made instruments such as  washboards, jugs, kazoos and musical saws.

One popular U.S. group in the 30s was Dan Burney & His Skiffle Boys.  It is thought that Donegan may have named his “skiffle breaks” after that group.

Regardless of the origin of the name, Donegan’s “skiffle breaks” became extremely popular, in fact they became more famous than the jazz band.  Donegan performed on guitar or banjo, accompanied by a washboard and tea-chest bass (a home-made bass formed by affixing a broomstick and a wire to an overturned tea-chest).

In late 1955, Decca Records released a single record of Rock Island Line by the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group.  Although Donegan’s song  was a direct copy of Leadbelly’s version of the folk-blues tune, it nevertheless became a major hit, reaching #6 on the British pop charts and #8 on the U.S. Billboard pop list.

This began a “skiffle craze” in the U.K.  Lonnie Donegan was the first British singer to have his debut record sell a million copies.  Here is a performance by Lonnie Donegan of his big hit, Rock Island Line.  This took place at a live TV show called “Puttin’ on the Donegan,” from the BBC on June 15, 1961.

I am reluctant to admit this, but in my youth I first became aware of Lonnie Donegan from a piece of fluff titled Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?

Donegan’s version of this tune was released in the U.S. in 1961, and  was a cover of a novelty song from the 1920s. It has achieved a certain degree of lasting notoriety from being played more than 50 times on the Dr. Demento radio program, which featured humorous and bizarre tunes.

The song is exactly what its title suggests – a philosophical discourse on the properties of chewing gum, particularly when it is left out overnight.  Here is the audio of a live performance by Lonnie Donegan of this ditty.

As you can tell, Donegan’s skiffle style was strongly reminiscent of old-time music-hall fare.  The silly banter between the musicians also brought to mind the repartee common in vaudeville acts.

One reason this song appealed to me is that Donegan was featured here on banjo.  I was struggling to master this instrument at the time, and Pete Seeger and Lonnie Donegan were two of the artists whose technique I copied.

It seems that a major appeal of Lonnie Donegan’s “skiffle” music was its accessibility.
It has been estimated that in the late 1950s, there were 30,000–50,000 skiffle groups in Britain. Sales of guitars grew rapidly, and other musicians were able to perform on improvised bass and percussion … without having to aspire to musical perfection or virtuosity.

Another important aspect of the British skiffle movement was in its appropriation of American folk and blues music.  Lonnie Donegan tended to cover traditional songs such as Wabash Cannonball and John Henry, while converting them to his skiffle style.

The popularity of the skiffle craze meant that thousands of British musicians would familiarize themselves with American spirituals, blues songs and folk classics.  American artists, particularly in the blues genre, would inspire a generation of blues-rock supergroups such as the Animals, the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin.

In any case, the skiffle craze inspired thousands of budding musicians, particularly young working-class Brits, to go out and purchase or construct instruments and form their own skiffle bands.  Most of these were strictly amateur affairs.  However, The Beatles grew out of the skiffle group The Quarrymen formed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; and The Bee Gees were initially a Manchester skiffle group called The Rattlesnakes, that featured the Gibbs brothers.

Music critics were pretty much unanimous in their assessment of skiffle music: it was amateurish and trivial; and it was a fad that would soon disappear.

Well, they were right about the amateurish and faddish aspects of skiffle music.  Skiffle never really progressed much from its initial rough beginnings.  And indeed, it turned out to be a fad.  Once rock music gained a foothold in the U.S. in the late 50s, Donegan found it difficult to make headway, except for his novelty song Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor …, which made the U.S. top ten.

Donegan continued to be a major artist in the U.K. until 1963, when the British Invasion led by the Beatles wiped out skiffle for good.  However, it would be difficult to call a musical genre “trivial” when it formed the inspiration for so many extraordinary rock groups.  Although Lonnie Donegan’s musical technique was rather simplistic, the skiffle movement played a pivotal role in the development of rock music in Britain.

We will finish with one more observation about Lonnie Donegan.  He frequently complained that he received only a ₤10 fee for his recording of Rock Island Line, his biggest hit.  Technically, this is true – Donegan was paid “scale” as a musician for recording the song.

However, Donegan conveniently forgot to mention that he had copyrighted the song Rock Island Line.  Thus, although the song had a substantial history before Donegan ever encountered it, and though Donegan basically produced a note-for-note copy of Leadbelly’s tune, Donegan subsequently received all of the music royalties from the song.

Furthermore, if someone later produced a version of the song, Donegan would then receive additional songwriting royalties!  So, not only did Lonnie Donegan reap a bountiful harvest of copyright royalties from Rock Island Line, he did so at the expense of Leadbelly, and conceivably also Kelly Pace who fashioned the first modern version of this song.

The Quarrymen and Rock Island Line:

The Quarrymen is the name of the group formed in 1956 by John Lennon and various mates from the Quarry Bank High School.  A few years ago, my friends Nick Toth and Kathy Schick brought me back a stone from the quarry in Liverpool after which Lennon’s high school was named. The stone is one of my prized possessions.

The Quarrymen in 1957, from L: George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney

The Quarrymen in 1957, from L: George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney

The photo at left shows members of The Quarrymen in 1957.  From L: George Harrison, who is either 14 or has just turned 15; 16-year-old John Lennon; Paul McCartney who is 15.

Initially, The Quarrymen was a skiffle group, one of the many such groups formed in the U.K. following the success of Lonnie Donegan.  As Paul McCartney described it,
“He [Donegan] was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get to the coveted No. 1 in the charts, and we studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man.”

So, here is a fascinating rendition of Rock Island Line by John Lennon.

In this song from 1972, John is singing and accompanying himself on electric guitar while Yoko listens and occasionally claps.  The quality of both video and audio is poor, but nevertheless the clip commemorates an important historical milestone in pop music history.

As this was Lonnie Donegan’s first big hit, Rock Island Line would have been one of the songs that the skiffle group The Quarrymen performed early in their history.  Other songs learned by the group included Cumberland Gap and Jump Down Turn Around (Pick a Bale of Cotton).

The earliest members of The Quarrymen included John Lennon and Eric Griffiths on guitar, Pete Shotton on washboard and Bill Smith on tea-chest bass.  The group had quite a turnover in personnel.  Then, in fall 1957 guitarist Paul McCartney was added to the group’s lineup.

Once Paul joined the group, they rather quickly made a transition from skiffle to rock and roll.  At this point, most of the other original Quarrymen left the ensemble.  The group’s repertoire included covers of songs by Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Little Richard.

An important influence at this time was the American rockabilly group Buddy Holly and the Crickets.  Not only did the Quarrymen perform a number of covers of Buddy Holly songs, but Holly’s success as a singer-songwriter may have inspired Lennon and McCartney to begin writing their own songs.

In spring 1958, the group added young guitarist George Harrison.  At this time, McCartney and Harrison purchased an amplifier and attached pickups to their guitars, converting themselves to an electric ensemble.  Now, the transition that would lead to The Beatles was well underway.

In March 1960, the three guitarists had added Stuart Sutcliffe on bass, and then changed their name to The Beatles.  After a couple of years of apprenticeship performing in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, the group became a tight and professional ensemble.

There were two remaining changes in band membership.  The first involved Stuart Sutcliffe leaving the group in July, 1961 in order to continue his career in painting.  At that point, Paul switched from guitar to bass.  Then in August, 1962, the Beatles replaced their drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr.

At that point, all the pieces were in place, and the Beatles were ready for prime time. “Beatlemania” developed in Liverpool and subsequently spread across Great Britain.  And the rest is history.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Rock Island Line
Wikipedia, Lead Belly
Wikipedia, John Lomax
Wikipedia, Lonnie Donegan
Wikipedia, Skiffle
Wikipedia, John Lennon
Wikipedia, The Quarrymen

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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3 Responses to Rock Island Line: Leadbelly, Lonnie Donegan, and John Lennon

  1. Pingback: A Whiter Shade of Pale: Procol Harum; Joe Cocker; Annie Lennox | Tim's Cover Story

  2. Brett says:

    Great essay on these songs and performers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot. This was a song that I greatly enjoyed as a teenager – both the Leadbelly and Lonnie Donegan versions. I was going to include ‘rare early audios’ of John Lennon and Paul McCartney each singing the song in the late 50s, until it was pointed out to me that those audios were fakes!

      Liked by 2 people

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