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The Rock Island Line
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm) ,
Big Indoor Trains(tm), and Creek Don't Rise(tm)

Rock Island Line, a Classic Train Song from Family Garden TrainsTM

The Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific railroad connected Chicago to most of the midwestern states west of the Mississippi, as well Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. For over a century, the "Rock Island" competed successfully with other railroads that covered essentially the same ground. But in the 1960s and 1970s, rail traffic fell off in general, and offering essentially the same services as two or three other railroads wasn't enough to keep "The Rock" in the black. The railroad fell behind in payments to creditors and even further behind in maintaining its own infrastructure. After garnering national attention, political support from President Carter, and many attempts at mergers or refinancing, the Rock finally closed down for good in 1980. Most of its assets were divided among competitors, but the old Rock Island connections between Chicago and Joliet survive as the "Rock Island District" of the Metra commuter rail service.

The Song - The song "Rock Island Line" has been around for the better part of a century. Pete Seeger and others have hypothesized that it started out a a work song, and the name may have been changed depending on who was paying you to pound steel or break rocks. It was first "collected" by folk song scholar John Lomax, in a 1934 visit to an Arkansas state prison. Not long after, folk singer Hudie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, rearranged and recorded his version in the 1940s.

The English Connection - In a strange twist, English singer Lonnie Donegan claimed authorship in Britain, after his 1955 recording of Leadbelly's arrangement became a huge hit there. In fact Donegan's recording of "Rock Island Line" is often given credit for starting the "skiffle" music movement in Britain, the analogue to the folk movement in the U.S., eclipsing Rock and Roll for several years on the radio. If you want to draw an even stranger connection, you should know that Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison first started working together in a skiffle band. So just think - if Lomax hadn't recorded the song, Leadbelly hadn't rearranged it, and Donegan hadn't "borrowed" it, the Beatles might never have existed.

The Song's Evolution - In Leadbelly's version of the song, the guitar imitates a train whistle that is presumably signalling to a toll gate operator that he is hauling only livestock, which should pass for free. In some later versions, the engineer actually talks to the toll agent. In still later versions, the story part of the song disappears altogether. In the 1960s, I recall folks singing this song just to draw attention to the then-struggling railroad's plight.

If you have a favorite train song, or a favorite performer that I've left out, please contact me and I'll try to track it down. Also, if you don't see the link for a particular song in the lists below, click the refresh button on your browser. It seems like Amazon can never populate all of the links at the same time.

On the other hand, sometimes publishers move things around and the links get broken permanently. If you see some cheezy top-40 hit on this page, that's Amazon's not very clever choice of a replacement.

    Rock Island Line
    [Spoken verse]
    Now this here's a story about the Rock Island Line.
    Well the Rock Island Line she runs down into New Orleans.
    There's a big tollgate down there and you know.
    If you got certain things on board when you go through the tollgate.
    Well you don't have to pay the man no toll.
    Well a train driver he pulled up to the tollgate,
    And a man hollered and asked him what all he had on board and said:

    I got livestock.      [accompaniment plays a lick
    I got livestock.       that is supposed to represent
    I got cows.             a train whistle giving a series of
    I got pigs.               short toots, presumably
    I got sheep.            indicating livestock cargo.]
    I got mules.
    I got all live stock.

    [Sung Chorus]
    Oh, the Rock Island line is a might good road
    Oh 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 Click to learn about our newsletter for Americana and related music styles

    [Spoken verse]
    Well he said you're alright boy you don't have to pay no toll.
    You can just go right on through so he went on through the tollgate.
    And as he went through he started pickin' up a little bit of speed.
    Pickin' up a little bit of steam.
    He got on through, then he turned and looked back at the man he said.

    Well I fooled you.      [accompaniment plays a lick
    I fooled you.              that is supposed to represent
    I got pig iron.             a heavier cargo.]
    I got pig iron.
    I got all pig iron.

    [Sung Chorus]
    Oh, the Rock Island line is a might good road
    Oh 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

    I may be right and I may be wrong
    But you're gonna miss me when I'm gone

    A, B, C, double-X, Y, Z,
    Cat's in the cupboard, but she can't see me.

    [These are verses that often appear in other railroad songs, which occasionally find their way to live performances of this song as well. They are sung to the tune of the chorus:]
    The engineer said "Before I die,
    There's two more drinks I'd like to try."
    Fireman said, "What could they be?"
    "Hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea."

    It was cloudy in the west, looked like rain,
    But round the corner come-a passenger train.
    North-bound train on the south bound track,
    You were all right a-leavin but you won't be back

Roll Your Own

Click for bigger photo - though why you would want to is anybody's guess.This song is structured in a way that makes it easy to add new verses, depending on the situation. Many years ago, my daugher Emily and I provided the musical entertainment at a picnic for members of the Miami Valley Garden Railway Society, a very active and friendly club in Southwest Ohio. (In case you didn't know, garden railways involve running really big model trains outside.) I added the following verse, which did require cramming "Miami Valley" into the space usually taken by three syllables. (sorry I don't have a recording. Actually I'm not sorry.):

    Oh, the Miami Valley Club is a mighty good club,
    The Miami Valley Club is the club to join,
    The Miami Valley Club is a mighty good club,
    Well, I beg your pardon but we do it in the garden,
    See the membership committe of the Miami Valley Club.

MP3 clips from Amazon

    Rock Island Line - The Weavers
    From the group that kick-started America's Folk music revival, back when Pete Seeger had hair
    Rock Island Line - Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
    An original folk duo's take.
    Rock Island Line - Johnny Cash
    - this version tells the story as well as singing the verses.
    Click to here a sample clip of this song.
    Click to see this song on

More Great Sound Clips of This Song

Amazon has dozens more great sound clips of this song by first-tier artists. But if I try to put more than a few on this page, it won't load very well on some computers. So if you want to browse more clips for yourself, please click the following link:

You-Tube Videos of This Song

When I first posted this page, I "embedded" the videos so you could see them without leaving this page. Unfortunately You-Tube videos go up and down and move around for a wide range of reasons, so after a year or so, all I had was a big row of black boxes that you could click on and get a warning message that you were violating copyright or something. Gotta love publishers whose "cease and desist" threats to YouTube and others protect viewers from encountering performances that the publishers don't even own the copyright to or that aren't available commercially anywhere.

Although this site doesn't get all that much traffic, you'd swear that they are monitoring us, because a lot of links that have been up for months or years are withdrawn because of "copyright violation" or some such within a week after I post them here.

In the meantime, I've gone to just listing the links I like that I can find on the day I go link-hunting. A week from now, they may all be gone. But once you're on You-Tube, if you search on the artist and song name, you may come across a similar video someone else has posted.

  • Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee - a folk and blues duo's appearance on a short-lived Pete Seeger television series.

  • Johnny Cash live on a very old television show. The video starts with some speaking, but the music is good once it starts.

  • Little Richard - he is on fire in this filmed studio performance.

  • Lonnie Donegan, who popularized this song in Britain.

  • Leadbelly, who introduced the song to the folk community. This is a recording of an old 78, with a still picture.

  • Johnny Cash live on his own show, some years later, with bigger hair.

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