Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Roba Stanley - Railroad Bill (information & lyrics)

Edited by Azizi Powell

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

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 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.

From Alabama: A History" by Virginia Van Der Veer Hamilton p. 86-89

“Morris Slater, once a woods-rider” who bled trees for resin on slash pine plantations and manufactured turpentine in crude stills, had taken up train robbery after he killed a deputy sheriff and fled the law. Slater broke into box cars to steal food, axes, shotguns shells, and other goods which he sold or donated to poor blacks. He earned the nickname “Railroad Bill” and a reputation for mystic powers which enabled him to transform into a rabbit, opossum, or other animal to evade his pursuers…
But after he had killed two more sheriffs, Railroad Bill met his inevitable fate at the hands of gunmen in Atmore. Curious citizens paid 25 cents for a glimpse of his body when it was exhibited in every “colored” waiting room* along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad line from Atmore to Greenville.

In the flatlands and red hills of south Alabama Railroad Bill became a folk hero to his people. Folklorists suggest that the classic social outlaws like Robin Hood and Jesse James or Railroad Bill, who steal from the rich and give to the poor usually emerge during stressful times to revolt against their oppressors. Railroad Bill’s popularity reflected the racial tensions of southern Alabama".
Lyrics to a version of "Railroad Bill" is also found on page 89.

*"Waiting room" here means train waiting room

From "Origin: Railroad Bill" posted by GUEST [Bob Coltman] 22 Jan 05 - 08:30 AM
..."The Roba Stanley recording would seem to be the root of this long recorded song trail, though the song's tradition goes back at least nine years earlier. Her version is unusually full...lots of verses, including some that haven't survived. I've gleaned the following from Charles Wolfe, "Roba Stanley, The First Country Sweetheart," a biography / discography printed in Tony Russell's valuable Old Time Music magazine #26, 1977 (out of London). He interviewed Roba Stanley Baldwin in 1976-77 in Gainesville, Florida. Per that article (I summarize):

Roba Stanley first recorded at age 14 in August 1924 and made her last record a little over a year later (marriage at 15 ended her career, as "My husband didn't like for me to play in public much"). She was a chubby white girl who sang with guitar. Then she married, had three kids, later gave away her guitar, and the musical part of her life was pretty much over.

Obscure as she is (she made only four records for Okeh), she may have been the first solo woman singer to broadcast on radio and record country music. Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis were earlier, but Wolfe distinguishes between Roba's roots country music and their fiddle-and-banjo breakdowns.

Born in Dacula, GA …, Roba was the daughter of R. M. "Rob" Stanley, a celebrated local fiddle champion whose house was a mecca for musicians near and far. By 1923 Roba was accompanying him for square dances. They debuted on WSB radio in early 1924.

Roba Stanley was, if not the earliest, among the earliest to record "Devilish Mary," the minstrel number "Mr. Chicken," "Frankie and Alvin" (her version of Frankie and Albert/Johnnie), a great "Single Life," and "Railroad Bill."

Where did she get the song? The article isn't specific. Wolfe concludes from his interviews with her that virtually all her songs were "picked up orally from sources in northeast Georgia." Roba made up some of her words. "I'd take me a piece of paper and write and get things to rhyme..." So some of her verses may have been all or partly hers.

She was passing along a song that was already popular with blacks, if not yet with whites, and had apparently been composed sometime in the previous ten to fifteen years. It was first (as far as I know) reported from Auburn, AL and Lowndes County, AL in 1915 or 1916 in Newman I. White's American Negro Folk Songs, which gives the stanza,

Railroad Bill did not know
Dat Jim McMillan had a forty-fo'

and the related Roborus song of the same date:

Roborus was a mighty mean man,
He killed my son by the lighten flash.

The song caught fire in the next ten years. By 1925 Dorothy Scarborough in On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs was reporting the song widespread across the south from there to Mississippi.

Riley Puckett could have been Roba's source. He recorded the song slightly earlier than she did, though his record was released later. (She got there first...never underestimate singers' competitive streaks). The ever-popular, hugely recorded blind singer Puckett, with the Skillet Lickers and as soloist, did get some of his material from black tradition.

However, there's the intriguing possibility that Roba's source may have been a black singer she heard locally. That back porch of her father's...or all those places they "played out..." Perhaps the color line got crossed to the extent of a curious girl of, say, 13, stopping to listen to a black street singer on the edge of a shady part of town. But that's speculation.

Herewith, Roba Stanley's version of Railroad Bill. The local references may reflect her own alterations.


Railroad Bill, ought to be killed,
Got my home in Lawrenceville,
Oh, drive on, you Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, got so mean,
Walked all the way from New Orleans,
Oh, drive on, you Railroad Bill (repeats for every verse except the last)

Railroad Bill, got so fine,
Shot nine holes through a silver dime,

Drink up your whiskey, cross to the bar,
Pistol a-shining like a morning star,

Two dice in Cuba, three craps in Spain,
Spend all my money for gasoline,

Ought to been there when I got paid off,
Had more money than a walkin' boss,

Went to Dacula to get me some meat,
Stanley Brothers sell 'em cheap,

Went to Dacula to get me some flour,
Pool and Pounds they sell 'em higher,

Going to Atlanta, I'm on the nine,
Call up my honey away down the line,

Going to Atlanta, I'm going on the train,
Talk to my honey until she changes her name,

Went down to the creek to take off a run,
First man I seen was Henry McClung,

Went down on the creek to stay out of trouble,
First man I see was John T. Tuggle,

Went up on the mountain to get me a load,
Met Sheriff Garner in the middle of the road,
Oh, ride, ride, ride.

NOTE: Needless to say "Stanley Brothers" in verse 7 doesn't refer to the bluegrass pioneers (that would take time travel, and more coincidence than even traditional music can bear). Ms. Stanley explained it was a store in Dacula, as was Pool & Pounds in verse 8; these are prime candidates for local authorship and just could be Roba's own composition, as could the verses featuring McClung and Tuggle, then constable and deputy in Dacula, and Garner, sheriff in Lawrenceville.

The comment above mentions the song "Roborus". "Roborus" was probably a folk etymology form of the name "Railroad Bill". Here's a quote from the 1928 book American Negro Folk-Songs edited by Newman Ivey White, page 359 [Google Books]
“Reported from Auburn, Alabama, 1915-1916, MS of A.M. Kearlyn

Roborus appears to be the same as Railroad Bill. The first line seems to be a variant of “Railroad Bill mighty bad man”.(Perrow, 1912, p.155, and Odum, p.125 pp. 200, 201, 202). The second line is a variant of two Railroad Bill lines ”.(Perrow, 1912, p.155) “Killed McMillan like a lightning flash” and “He killed Bill Johnson with a lightning flash”.

Roborus was a mighty mean man
He killed my son by a lightning flash
"Shanghai Rooster" appears to have been a folk etymology form of "Roborus" (probably from a mishearing of the word "rooster").
“Reported from Auburn, Alabama, 1915-1916, MS of A. H.Williamson as heard in Lowndes County
With the first line, cf Odum, 1925, p.134 as “Shanghai Rooster”

Shang-hi Rooster ain’t got no comb
Some of dese women ain’t got no home
An’ did n’t it rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.

Railroad Bill didn’t know
That Jim McMillan had a forty-fo’
An’ did n’t it rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.

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

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