|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains™|
Rock Island Line, a Classic Train Song from Family Garden Trains™
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 him down. Also, if you don't see the link for a particular song, hit refresh - it seems like Amazon can never populate all of the links at the same time.
Roll Your OwnThis 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,
MP3 clips from Amazon
You-Tube Videos of This Song
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