Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lonnie Donegan - Railroad Bill (with information about Skiffle Music)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part V of a five part series of posts about old time American music songs entitled "Railroad Bill". Part I and Part II of this series provides general information about the man known as "Railroad Bill".

Part V provides a sound file and lyrics of this song by Lonnie Donegan, who was a prominent White British Skiffle vocalist. Information about Skiffle music is also provided in that post. An Addendum to that post also features a sound file of

Part I provides lyrics & a sound file of a 1924 version of "Railroad Bill" by Riley Puckett. That post also provides links to information about and examples of some other early versions of "Railroad Bill" songs. Click for that post.

Part II provides lyrics to the version of this song that was recorded in 1924 by Anglo-American vocalist Roba Stanley. In the addendum to that post I've also included the "Roborus" fragment and the "Shanghai Rooster" fragment which are folk etymology variants of "Railroad Bill". Click for that post.

Part III provides lyrics of a 1929 song by Will Bennett. This is the first version of this song that was recorded by a Black person.
Click for that post. Click

Part IV provides a sound file & lyrics of this song by Frank Hutchinson. Click for that post.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

FEATURED SOUNDFILE: Railroad Bill - Lonnie Donegan

Malcalum, Uploaded on Mar 31, 2007

The death of Railroad Bill - Private detectives, rail detectives, lawmen, and citizens were after Bill, or at least the $1250 reward on his head. A posse was taking a break in the store of Tidmore and Eard in Atmore when a lone, black man with a slight limp walked through to the counter. Nobody paid him much attention except the storekeeper who recognized him as Railroad Bill. After Bill's last visit, the storekeeper placed a double barrel shotgun within reach so that he might win that reward. He was so afraid of Bill that he didn't go for the gun. Bill sat himself on a barrel and proceeded to snack on crackers and cheese, the posse continuing their conversations just across the room.

Leonard McGowin had recognized Bill going into the store. Again, Bill's reputation, the legend that he could only be killed by a silver bullet, his known ability with a gun, caused McGowin to hesitate. McGowin went around to a side door and fired his rifle from outside, issuing a fatal wound. On the way down, Bill went for his gun, but was hit again by a shotgun blast from the storekeeper. It took the startled posse a moment to figure out what was going on and then they opened fire on the corpse.

Railroad Bill's body was strapped to a board. His guns were placed on his person and he was placed on public display. In every "colored waiting room", in every major depot, from Atmore and Brewton to Montgomery, citizens were given the chance to pay 25 or 50 cents to view the remains or have their pictures taken with the notorious outlaw. ... The body was buried in an unmarked grave in Pensacola.

The only genuine picture of McCoy is the final one of his body strapped to a board. All the others are of various other African American bad men and notable characters of those days…..

More on -
[This article identifies “Railroad Bill” as “Bill McCoy” instead of as Morris Slater as is the case with many other “Railroad Bill” articles.

Comments from the YouTube video comment thread:
"Railroad Bill is credited to Traditional,Arrangement Lonnie Donegan on Lon's CD Skiffle Sessions .Its possible it came from the same source as Rock Island Line that being Leadbelly. Its a great track from a great artist . The CD is A1 contains lots of early tracks"
-Susan Yates, 2007
"Do you know the names of all those in your photos on this? The one of the guy holding a rifle w/saddle on the ground & one following where the guy is on a horse, those seem to be Bill Pickett, he is credited with being the founder of todays' Rodeo event, called Bulldogging. Still get a real kick out of your video, keep up with your talent."
-Dunitlucky, 2008
"No one knows who wrote the folk song, but it was around by 1909 at the latest, and very likely was already around as of about 1897. Some may have called him "Wild Bill McCoy" as suggested here, but "Railroad Bill," the legendary outlaw who inspired the song and lies dead in the 1897 photo seen at 2:02, was a guy named Morris Slater."
-JosephNScott, 2008
"I don't know who wrote it but Lonnie definitely got it from Leadbelly. The opening guitar riff is classic Leadbelly."
-pnomis, 2008
Click for a link to lyrics of Railroad Bill as sung by Lonnie Donegan.

"Skiffle is a type of popular music with jazz, blues, folk, and roots influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. Originating as a term in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, it became popular again in the UK in the 1950s, where it was mainly associated with musician Lonnie Donegan and played a major part in beginning the careers of later eminent jazz, pop, blues, folk and rock musicians.

American Skiffle
The origins of skiffle are obscure but are generally thought to lie in African-American musical culture in the early twentieth century. Skiffle is often said to have developed from New Orleans jazz, but this claim has been disputed.[1] Improvised jug bands playing blues and jazz were common across the American South in the early decades of the twentieth century, even if the term skiffle was not used to describe them.[2]

They used instruments such as the washboard, jugs, tea chest bass, cigar-box fiddle, musical saw, and comb-and-paper kazoos, as well as more conventional instruments, such as acoustic guitar and banjo.[3] The term skiffle was one of many slang phrases for a rent party, a social event with a small charge designed to pay rent on a house.[4] It was first recorded in Chicago in the 1920s and may have been brought there as part of the African-American migration to northern industrial cities. The first use of the term on record was in 1925 in the name of Jimmy O'Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers. Most often it was used to describe country blues music records, which included the compilation "Hometown Skiffle" (1929) and "Skiffle Blues" (1946) by Dan Burley & His Skiffle Boys.[5] It was used by Ma Rainey (1886–1939) to describe her repertoire to rural audiences.[1] The term skiffle disappeared from American music in the 1940s.

Skiffle in Britain

A relatively obscure genre, skiffle might have been largely forgotten if not for its revival in the United Kingdom in the 1950s and the success of its main proponent, Lonnie Donegan."

BONUS SOUNDFILE: Railroad Bill (Etta Baker with Taj Mahal)


anonymoose713, Uploaded on Jul 9, 2009
From the CD titled: "Etta Baker with Taj Mahal" [instrumental]

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the featured vocalists/composers.

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