Prison Song Of Hope

This song ‘Midnight Special’ has a long history and the first lyrics turned up in a stanza fragment found by Howard Odum around 1905 and this was published six years later in the Journal Of American Folklore as part of a railroad number titled ‘Grade Song’.  Robert Winslow Gordon, later the founding head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, collected other parts of the song from two correspondents who heard it in Texas in 1923.  The song was first commercially recorded on the OKeh label in 1926 as ‘Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special’ by Dave ‘Pistol Pete’ Cutrell.  Sam Collins recorded the song commercially in 1927 under the title ‘The Midnight Special Blues’ for Gennett Records.  The Collins version reflected a theme where convicts in certain Southern prisons who had been on their best behavior for a week were rewarded on Sunday by a visit from Memphis prostitutes who boarded a train in Memphis at midnight on Saturday.  Leadbelly was escorted to Sugar Land prison by Bud Russell in 1918.  In 1934 Leadbelly recorded a version of the song where he inserted several stanzas relating to a 1923 Houston jailbreak by a bank jobber who was about to be transferred to prison by Bud Russell into this traditional song.  Bud Russell was the Chief Transfer Agent for the Texas prison system for more than 40 years and he was responsible for taking over 115,000 prisoners to jail.

The Midnight Special was a steam locomotive train on the Southern Pacific Golden Gate Limited that ran from Houston to San Antonio and passed by the Louisiana state prison each day at midnight.  Leadbelly popularized it upon his release from Sugar Land prison in Texas, where he could hear the Midnight Special come through.  In the song, the light of the train gives the prison inmates a superstitious hope to deal with the dark despair of their incarceration, apparently if it shined into prison cells on them, they would take it as a sign they will soon go free, and be blessed with good fortune.  The superstition said that if the light from the Midnight Special shined on you, that meant your woman was on the train with the papers from the Governor to get you out of prison.  Thus, the men hoped that the light of the Midnight Special would shine its light on them.  The song celebrates this train and tells the story of being locked up as a black man and how easily this would happen if you stepped out of line, “If you’re ever in Houston, you’d better do right you’d better not gamble, and you better not fight.

Huddie William Ledbetter was born on January 20 in 1888 and he is much better known as Leadbelly.  He was in jail at Sugar Land prison for a few year before his pardon in 1925, because he was convicted of killing his cousin’s husband in a fight over a woman.  When he was fifteen he taught himself how to play the accordion and later he learned to play the piano, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, and violin, and he became the undisputed master of the twelve-string guitar.  Lead Belly’s budding music career hit a slight hitch in 1915, when the folk guitarist was arrested for punching a dude in the face, and he was sentenced to serve an unspecified period of hard labor on a chain gang in Harrison County, Texas.  Two days into his mandatory community service Leadbelly slipped off when the guards weren’t looking, and escaped the prison, changed his name, and went back to doing manual labor by day and being an aspiring musician by night.

While he was in Sugar Land prison he was called the Singing Convict and it is thought that was also where he acquired the nickname Leadbelly.  There are several conflicting stories about how Ledbetter got this pseudonym.  Some claim his fellow inmates called him Leadbelly as a mispronunciation of his family name Ledbetter.  Others say he earned the name after seeing his physical toughness when he was wounded in the stomach with buckshot.  Another theory is that the name refers to his ability to drink rot gut moonshine.  Some others said that it came from a supposed tendency to lay about in the shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working, as if his stomach was weighted down by lead.  Leadbelly formed an alliance with legendary slide guitarist with Blind Lemon Jefferson after he was released from prison and they busked for drinks and spare change.  ALS caught up with him for good, and he died on December 6, 1949 at age 61.

In 1910, John Avery Lomax an English at Texas A&M University published his anthology, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, and around the same time he co-founded the Texas Folklore Society.  In June 1933, John and his son Alan toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners such as James ‘Iron Head’ Baker, Mose ‘Clear Rock’ Platt, and Lightnin’ Washington.  Lomax often recorded in prisons in the hopes of finding an isolated musical culture ‘untouched’ by the modern world, a true representation of all the people, and the father and son team recorded Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters.  One night while in Sugar Land prison, Leadbelly got together with three lifers, Iron Head, Clear Rock and Yellow Joe and they heard the whistle of the Midnight Special upon which Iron Head said, “May as well git to sleep now.”  Leadbelly mentioned, “That’s the train what brought me here, I guess.”  Iron Head grinned and said, “Man, you come here on the Midnight Special?  You should of jumped like a jack-rabbit to get you face in that beam!”  The men laughed, but Leadbelly looked perplexed.  “They’s a story here ‘bout that train what’s been hangin’ in the air for a long time,” Iron Head said.  “If you is lucky enough to get hit from the beam of the locomotive’s light, that mean you gonna be set free.”  They talked on into the night, swapping stories of Sugar Land and Iron Head told of a girl named Rosie who lived there a long time ago and who was married to one of the prisoners.  “Every week she’d get her master to write her a note, nice and educated like, to take to the warden askin’ to set her man free.  They said she was right pretty.  And every week, in the rain even, she would show up regular like the hands of a clock.”  Leadbelly was eager to learn more so he said, “Mighty interestin’.  Does that locomotive light really come in here?”  Iron Head replied, “Ain’t nothin’ comin’ in here but the bugs, jus’ a story, that’s all.”

Many blues artists have recorded this song, and one of them was Odetta who recorded ‘Midnight Special’ in 1963 on her compilation album titled ‘Odetta’.  Odetta Holmes was born on December 31, 1930 and she is an American folk singer, actress, guitarist, lyricist who had operatic training from the age of 13 and she was called “the voice of the civil rights movement” due to the influential role she played as an activist and a blues/gospel musician.  Odetta had a sonorous voice which she used to make her listeners cry, laugh, hate and love.  She was nominated for three Grammy’s over the course of her career, but she never had a hit song with which to frame her career.  However her delivery, permeated her music with  heart, soul and deep conviction, that has consistently plucked a vital chord with her audiences.  She was the first female folk singer to forge the bond between traditional folk music and more contemporary forms, such as the blues, gospel music and protest songs.

Odetta released her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballad and Blues”, in 1956.  This album would turn out to be influential for Bob Dylan, as he said that the first thing that turned him on to folk singing was Odetta.  Not only did her music draw Bob Dylan to folk music, but she also met Joan Baez, another popular folk musician, and Baez cites Odetta as one of her primary influences as well.  Odetta would later go on to perform at the 1963 march on Washington, march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, sing for presidents Kennedy and Clinton, as well as perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.  Odetta died on December 2, 2008 from Cardiovascular disease.

This song became one of the great standards of the folk/blues movement, and it was given a fresh lease on life when John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival arranged a version of it for the band which became a regular feature in their concerts.  The driving rhythm of CCR provided a whole new way of hearing the song, thus it was introduced to a new generation, who probably would not have heard it otherwise.  The four hirsute, sheepish men of Creedence Clearwater Revival made some of the greatest singles to make the charts as the sixties ended and the seventies began.  As a kid, John Fogerty attended Berkeley Folk Festival where Pete Seeger exposed a film of Lead Belly performing ‘Cotton Fields’ and ‘The Midnight Special’.   The song appears on the 1969 album Willy and the Poor Boys’ which reached platinum status, and their ‘Midnight Special’ was featured prominently in The Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Well, you wake up in the mornin’, you hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table to see the same old thing.
Ain’t no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan.
But you better not complain, boy, you get in trouble with the man.

Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a ever lovin’ light on me.

Yonder come miss Rosie, how in the world did you know?
By the way she wears her apron, and the clothes she wore.
Umbrella on her shoulder, piece of paper in her hand;
She come to see the gov’nor, she wants to free her man.

Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a ever lovin’ light on me.

If you’re ever in Houston, well, you better do the right;
You better not gamble, there, you better not fight, at all
Or the sheriff will grab ya and the boys will bring you down.
The next thing you know, boy, Oh! You’re prison bound.

Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a ever lovin’ light on me.

Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine a everlovin’ light on me.

Written for FOWC with Fandango – Eager, for Sheryl’s A New Daily Post Word Prompt – Sonorous, for Ragtag Community – Hirsute, for Scotts Daily Prompt – True and for Word of the Day Challenge Prompt – Alliance.

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