Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Riley Puckett - Railroad Bill (information, sound file, and lyrics)

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 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 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

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"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 "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 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 for information about Anglo-American vocalist/musician Riley Puckett(May 7, 1894 - July 13, 1946).

(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.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. These songs seem to be about someone else, or some other idea , other than the real Railroad Bill. Maybe someone heard a few details, and wrote a song. He got his name while working in the turpentine mills around Bluff Springs , Florida ( just below the all african-american community of Teaspoon-- which we now call Century, Florida.) His exploits should be considered as just as exciting as any other wild west outlaw. If he had been white( im a white/ native america resident of Escambia county , Alabama) they would be.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Matt Helms.

      As you alluded to the character "Railroad Bill" and his songs/stories are examples of how American history as it is shared now is incomplete and distorted.

    2. The only parts that pertain to morris slater/ bill mccoy " railroad bill" are the 4 lines with mcmillan in them. He did kill a sheriff e.s. mcmillan, another sheriff, and a deputy in 1893 which started him on his escapades. Around here, we havea community called " Freemanville" that was started just after the ciil war by african americans, most of it is no in the city of Atmore , Alabama. Some stories have Bill selling stuff he stole off the trains for less than the merchants would sell them, and leaving foodstuffs at the doors of poor people ( black and white). There is also a true story of a local place called Hurricane Bayou where he had a standoff with a dozen armed men...and escaped unscathed.

    3. The mix of fact and fiction is interesting.

      Thanks for sharing, Matt.

    4. I would also love to hear stories from your area. My history is your history, your history is my history. Thanks for responding. And as I am a musician/songwriter ( country, rock , and country rock-a-billy) and an autistic, i have to research what i write about. Heh. I also havent read all your blogs , yet, but have you heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

    5. I'm glad you found this blog, Matt.

      As the description indicates, I focus on music, dance, and other cultural indices from African Americans and other Black people throughout the world. Included in that broad description are some remembrances/stories from and about my life and about some artists from my adopted hometown (Pittsburgh, PA).

      Here's one blog post about me: I Got My African Name

      And here's one blog post about Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Sister Rosetta Tharpe - "This Train (Is Bound For Glory)" information, video, & lyrics

  2. That is awesome. :) it is people like you that make life interesting. See-- country music has roots not only in Irish/Scottish/English folk music , but also in African-American folk music. Sister Tharpe is one of my favorite artists ever. My brother, who is in my band, and plays everythi g and anything he touches, and is also a total Redneck ....his favorite artist is Louis Armstrong. What that man could have acheived had he been an artist today.......And I love history. Thanks for responding to me . :)

    1. Have you ever heard of the Mobile , Al community of Africatown?

    2. I hadn't heard of Africatown until you asked me about it.

      Thank you!

      Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia article about this fascinating piece of American history:

      Africatown, also known as AfricaTown USA and Plateau, is a community located three miles (5 km) north of downtown Mobile, Alabama. It was formed by West Africans who were among the last known illegal shipment of slaves to the United States. These people created their own community and retained their customs and language following the American Civil War.[2]

      Africatown had its beginnings in an 1860 plan by some wealthy slavemasters and their friends to see if they could evade the law and import slaves from Africa. They bet each other they could elude federal authorities. Timothy Meaher, a shipbuilder and landowner; his brother Byrnes Meaher, John Dabey and others invested money to hire a crew and captain for one of Meaher's ships to go to Africa and bring back laborers for slaves...

      Thirty-two Africans had been taken to Magazine Point, the property owned by Timothy Meaher north of Mobile. As the government was investigating the illegal importation, the Africans were left on their own to survive. This was the site that was developed by them as what became known as Africatown. Among the Africans was a man named Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, who was the last survivor of the original group, living until 1935.

      The group built shelters of whatever they found growing in the Alabama forests, and adapted their hunting to the rich game they found in the area. After the Civil War and emancipation, they were joined by a number of their fellow tribesmen. A man who became known as Charlie Poteet was their chief; their medicine man was named Jabez. In time, they formed a self-governing society. They spoke their native language and carried on their tribal traditions into the 1950s.[4]"...

  3. I am very interested in the experiences of others. For instance, i am trying to find out what the plantations were from which the Freemanville community and others near my hometown were called, who owned them, where they all went ( white and black alike ). I live in a place called Canoe, we know there was an extensive African American settlement to our east at one time , yet no evidence has ever been found.

    1. Thanks again Matt for sharing this information.

      Hopefully, if it is knowable, someone will tell you the information you are seeking- and hopefully, you will then share it here on pancocojams.

      Best wishes!