Edited by Azizi Powell
This is Part I of 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".
This post provides a sound file and lyrics to the version of this song that was recorded in 1924 by Anglo-American vocalist/musician Riley Puckett. An addendum to this post also provides notes about other verses of that song or variants of that song that were collected in the early 20th century.
Part II provides lyrics of a 1924 version of "Railroad Bill" by Roba Stanley. Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2013/09/roba-stanley-railroad-bill-information.html 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.
Part IV provides a sound file & lyrics of this song by Frank Hutchinson. Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2013/09/frank-hutchison-railroad-bill.html for that post.
Part V provides a sound file and lyrics of this song by Lonnie Donegan, who was a prominent British Skiffle vocalist. Information about Skiffle music is also provided in that post. Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2013/09/lonnie-donegan-railroad-bill-with.html.
The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, and aesthetic purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT "RAILROAD BILL"
"The legend of Railroad Bill arose in the winter of 1895, along the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad line in southern Alabama. Based loosely on the exploits of an African American outlaw known as "Railroad Bill," tales of his brief but action-filled career on the wrong side of the law have been preserved in song (see lyrics), fiction, and theater. He has been variously portrayed as a "Robin Hood" character, a murderous criminal, a shape shifter, and a nameless victim of the Jim Crow South. He was never conclusively identified, but L&N detectives claimed he was a man named Morris Slater, and some residents of Brewton believed him to be a man called Bill McCoy who was shot by local law enforcement.
Stories about Railroad Bill began to surface in early 1895, when an armed vagrant began riding the L&N boxcars between Flomaton and Mobile. He earned the nickname "Railroad Bill," or sometimes just "Railroad," from the trainmen who had trouble detaining the rifle-wielding hitchhiker...
Railroad Bill was a symbol of the racial and economic divide in the post-Reconstruction Deep South. During this period of increasing legal segregation in Alabama and the rest of the South, the hunt for Railroad Bill became a theatrical white supremacist saga in local newspapers. The outlaw's legacy has been passed down through generations in many cultural representations. Railroad Bill blues ballads began circulating in the early twentieth century; one was recorded by Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner in 1924. Musicologist Alan Lomax recorded a version of Railroad Bill by Payneville native Vera Ward Hall in 1939. Blues singers have used "Railroad Bill" as a stage name, and the popularity of the ballads exploded during the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. In 1981, the Labor Theater in New York City produced the musical play Railroad Bill by C. R. Portz”.
Click http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=21456#1385373 "Origin: Railroad Bill" comment posted by Q 22 Jan 05 - 02:48 PM for the earliest collected fragments of "Railroad Bill". Those verses were collected in 1909 by E. C. Perrow [1912, Songs and Rhymes from the South, Part 1, JAFL XXV, p. 155] from "Alabama and Mississippi blacks".
Here's a note from that same commenter about another early collection of "Railroad Bill" song fragments:
"Howard W. Odum published Railroad Bill verses in 1911. The story was taking off and 'Bill' became known in the west, the story probably carried there by black railroaders and cowboys."
A "Railroad Bill" song is also included in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 collection Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise. Another "Railroad Bill" song-from Odum- is found in Dorothry Scarborough's 1925 collection On The Trail Of Negro Folk Songs. Click that same Mudcat thread http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=21456 for the words to those versions that I reposted [Azizi Date: 22 Jan 05 - 12:33 PM and Azizi Date: 22 Jan 05 - 01:17 PM]
Also, that same discussion thread includes a comment posted by GUEST,C.B. Date: 22 Jan 05 - 04:34 AM who purports to be a descendant of Morris Slater, the man who was widely known to be "Railroad Bill". That commenter provides some background information about Morris Slater which seems to fit the information that is otherwise known about him.
FEATURED SOUND FILE: Riley Puckett-Railroad Bill
BBYMRLCCOTN, Uploaded on May 2, 2010
Click http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riley_Puckett for information about Anglo-American vocalist/musician Riley Puckett(May 7, 1894 - July 13, 1946).
LYRICS: RAILROAD BILL
(As sung by Riley Puckett)
"This song had it's last general popularity during the folk revival of the 60's when it was recorded by several artists, today it is mainly heard in OT circles."*
Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill
He never worked, and he never will,
And it's ride, ride, ride.
Railroad Bill's a mighty mean man
Shot the light out of the poor brakeman's hand
Railroad Bill, up on a hill
Lightin' a seegar with a ten-dollar bill.
Railroad Bill took my wife,
If I didn't like it, gonna take my life.
Goin' on a mountain, goin' out west
Thirty-eight special stickin' out of my vest.
Buy me a pistol just as long as my arm
Shoot everybody ever done me harm.
Got a thirty-special in a forty-five frame,
I can't miss 'cause I got dead aim.
Railroad Bill, he ain't so bad
Whupped his mama, shot his old dad.
Early one morning, standing in the rain
Round the bend come a long freight train.
Railroad Bill a-comin' home soon
Killed McMillan by the light of the moon
McMillan had a special train
When they got there they was prayin'
Kill me a chicken, send me the wing
They think I'm workin', Lord, I ain't doin' a thing.
Kill me a chicken, send me the head,
Think I'm workin', Lord, I'm layin' in bed.
Gonna drink my whiskey, drink it in the wind
The doctor said it'd kill me but he didn't say when.
"One of the classic guitar virtuoso finger-picking songs.
Recorded by Cisco Huston, Hobart Smith, Guy Carawan, Jack Elliot."
*OT- probably means "old time music".
Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the featured vocalists/composers. And thanks to the publisher of this featured version on YouTube.
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