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The beginning of the most popular version of the song tells the story of a train operator who smuggles pig iron through a toll gate by claiming all he had on board was livestock, but this episode was a later addition not present in the traditional, 1929 version.
The song's chorus includes:
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
Many artists subsequently recorded it, often changing the verses and adjusting the lyrics.
The earliest known version of "Rock Island Line" 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. The lyrics to this version are largely different to the version that later evolved and became famous, with verses describing people and activities associated with the yard.
The first audio recording of the song was made by folklorist and musicologist John A. Lomax at the Tucker, Arkansas prison farm on September 29, 1934. Lead Belly accompanied Lomax to the prison. This version retains some lyrical features of the 1929 version, but also features key elements of the "classic" version. A similar version was recorded by Lomax in October 1934 at Cummins State Farm prison in Lincoln County, Arkansas, performed by a group of singers led by Kelly Pace.
In 1964, The Penguin Book Of American Folk Songs, compiled and with notes by Alan Lomax, was published. It includes "Rock Island Line" with the following footnote:
John A. Lomax recorded this song at the Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas, in 1934 from its convict composer, Kelly Pace. The Negro singer, Lead Belly, heard it, rearranged it in his own style, and made commercial phonograph recordings of it in the 1940s. One of these recordings was studied and imitated phrase by phrase, by a young English singer of American folk songs [referring to Lonnie Donegan], who subsequently recorded it for an English company. The record sold in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and England, and this Arkansas Negro convict song, as adapted by Leadbelly, was published as a personal copyright, words and music, by someone whose contact with the Rock Island Line was entirely through the grooves of a phonograph record.
According to Harry Lewman Music,
Lead Belly and John and Alan Lomax supposedly first heard it from [a] prison work gang during their travels in 1934/35. It was sung a cappella. Huddie [Lead Belly] sang and performed this song, finally settling on a format where he portrayed, in song, a train engineer asking the depot agent to let his train start out on the main line.
Prison inmates in Arkansas - Recorded by John Lomax in Arkansas twice in 1934. The October 1934 recording, by Kelly Pace and a group of convicts, was released on the compilation album A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (released 1997)
Lead Belly - Recorded in Washington, D.C. on June 22, 1937, the first of many recordings he made during his career, the last being live at the University of Texas at Austin on June 15, 1949. "Rock Island Line" appears on the Lead Belly compilation Rock Island Line: Original 1935-1943 Recordings (released 2003), among many others.
Arkansas prisoners - Also recorded by John Lomax in 1939. This performance is included with his 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.
George Melly (single 1951) - Recorded for the small British Jazz label Tempo (which was subsequently acquired by Decca) under the name "The George Melly Trio", and featuring Johnny Parker on piano and Norman Dodsworth on drums (both members of Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz Band with whom Melly was the singer).
Lonnie Donegan (single 1955) - In July 1954 Donegan recorded this fast-tempo version of "Rock Island Line", with Chris Barber's Jazz Band. It was the first debut record to be certified gold in the UK, where it helped trigger the skiffle craze. The single reached the top ten in the US, peaking at number eight. This record is quoted by various later famous musicians as a catalyst for their musical development. Donegan embellished Lead Belly's earlier lyrics with an account of how the locomotive engineer fooled a toll-collector by misrepresenting his load of pig-iron as livestock, which was not chargeable, but this is based on his misunderstanding of the railroad phrase "in the hole" (meaning in the siding); the original meaning was merely that the engineer avoided a wait in the siding because trains carrying livestock were given priority.
Don Cornell (single 1956) - Recorded for Coral, an early American cover version following the success of Lonnie Donegan's record in the US charts.
Stan Freberg (single 1956) - This was a typical Freberg parody of Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line", following the latter's American chart success. Issued on Capitol, it was the B-side to Freberg's parody of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel".
Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957) Cash adds two verses to the song, one about a train coming down the track and the second about an engineer indicating two beverages he wants to try before he dies: "a hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea."
Milt Okun - America's Best Loved Folk Songs, Baton BL1203 (1957)