Tag Archives: leadbelly

The Rock Island Lie

Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the revolutionary impact that railways had on the world and the way people live their lives. I mean, the very fact that you’re reading this blog indicates that you’re an intelligent person, and no doubt very good-looking as well. Kudos to you.

But to recap. Railways, railroads, call them what you will, they were one of the most incredible innovations of human history. Suddenly unthinkable distances could be covered in mere days in comfort. Goods could be traded in places where it had hitherto been impossible. Travel was no longer a luxury for the rich. So it’s no surprise that railways have also had an impact on culture, inspiring works from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Buster Keaton’s The General. Then there’s the song, the Rock Island Line. This was first performed by Leadbelly, but has been covered many times – Yr. Humble Chronicler has the Lonnie Donegan version on his iPod. I’d recommend familiarising yourself with it before reading any further.

What is less well-known [DISCLAIMER: Neither the author nor the webmasters make any claim to the veracity of the following] is that Leadbelly considered a different version of the lyrics before settling on the published ones. Recently-unearthed notes reveal that the original opening would have gone something like this.

Now this here’s a story about the Rock Island Line.
The Rock Island Line, she runs down into New Orleans
And just outside of New Orleans is a big toll gate
And all the trains that go through the toll gate,
They gotta pay the man some money
But of course, if you got certain things on board
You’re okay and you don’t have to pay the man nothin’.
And just now we see a train comin’ down the line
When it come up to the toll gate,
The driver, he shout down to the man,
“I got pigs,
I got horses,
I got cows
I got sheep,
I got all livestock,
I got all livestock,
I got all livestock.”
The man say, “Whoa, hold on, boy, those are clearly steel wagons.”
Then the driver look back, and he say, “Are you sure?”
And the man say, “Well, yeah. I mean, I can see exactly what’s in ’em. I mean, stock cars look significantly different to the sort of wagons you’d use to carry pig iron, which incidentally is what you actually have in there. I don’t believe you’re a real train driver at all.”
So the driver, he say, “You’ve taken all the fun out of this song.”
And that’s where the story ends.

This train isn't carrying livestock either.

This train isn't carrying livestock either.