Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Will Bennett - 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 of a 1929 song by Will Bennett. This is the first version of this song that was recorded by a Black person.

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 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 Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Railroad Bill
Date: 10 Mar 02 - 11:59 AM

"Railroad Bill" has a long history, possibly going back before the events concerning Morris Slater, who was killed in Alabama in 1897 (Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail, p. 122-131). It appears in many collections of Negro folk songs. …

It has been recorded by Will Bennett, 1929, Vocalion 1464. It is the first recording by a black artist, and the music with chords and text is reproduced in Cohen.

It was recorded by Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner, 1924, Columbia 15040-D; the first recording of the song. It was also recorded by Frank Hutchison, 1929, Okeh 45425 (reissued on Rounder 1007 in "The Train That Carried My Girl From Town," lyrics in Cohen. Cohen lists a number of other recordings.
Lyrics to two early black versions are in Odum and Johnson, 1925, The Negro and His Songs.
I will transcribe the lyrics of any of these if there is any interest.

Will Bennett sang "Railroad Bill" in B.
(C) Railroad Bill, ought to be killed,
Never worked and he nev (F) er will.
Now I'm gonna (C) ride, my Rail (G7) road (C)Bill.

From "Origins: Railroad Bill"
Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
Date: 19 Mar 03 - 02:08 AM

As indicated by a posting from Dicho in the other thread linked at the top of this page, my comment that Frank Hutchison was the first white artist to record this was incorrect - as I recall, I took that bit of misinformation from notes on an reissue LP sleeve. Riley Puckett was first to record it in November 1924, but his recording remained unissued until November 1925 as Co 15040-D. Roba Stanley recorded it a month later than Riley, in December 1924, but her recording, OK 40295, was released months earlier than his - in March 1925. The Georgia Crackers recorded it in 1927, but this was unissued. [Info from Meade et alia 'Country Music Sources' p67].


Subject: Lyr Req: Will Bennett's 'Railroad Bill'
From:John Minear
Date: 26 Aug 08 - 03:11 PM

I have been trying, without success, to decipher the last two verses of Will Bennett's "Railroad Bill". Has anybody ever figured out what they might be? According to Norm Cohen in LONG STEEL RAIL, Bennett recorded this in 1929 on Vocalion (1464) in Knoxville, Tennessee. It has been reissued on "People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938". Here are the rest of the lyrics:

Railroad Bill, ought to be killed
Never worked and he never will

Railroad Bill done took my wife
Threatened on me, that he would take my life

Going up on the mountain, take my stand (chance)
Forty-one derringer in my right and left hand

Going up on the mountain, going out west
Forty-one gun just sticking in my breast

Buy me a gun just as long as my arm
Kill everybody ever done me wrong

Buy me a gun with a shiny barrel
Kill somebody about my good-looking gal

Got a thirty-eight special on a forty-four frame
How in the world can I miss him when I've got dead aim

When I went to the doctor, asked him what the matter could be
Said if you don't stop drinking, son, it'll kill you dead

Going to drink my liquor, drink it in the wind
Doctor said it will kill me, but he never said when

If the river was brandy and I was a duck
I'd sink to the bottom and I'd never come up

Honey, honey, do you think of me
Times have caught me living on pork and beans

Son, you talk about your honey, you ought to see mine
She's humpbacked, bow-legged, crippled and blind

Honey, honey, do you think I'm a fool
Think I'm going to quit you while the weather is cool
Here are the garbled ones:

Honey, honey, quit your worrying me
It's going through the world in my heart disease

Going to the mountain *do everything*
Go through the world :

Thanks for your help.
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Will Bennett's 'Railroad Bill'
From:Dead Horse
Date: 26 Aug 08 - 06:13 PM

More like "for my hearts ease" iffen ya was ta ax me.

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Will Bennett's 'Railroad Bill'
Date: 27 Aug 08 - 07:51 PM

Paul Oliver gives a part transcription at pp241-242 of the Cambridge Uni paperback edition of 'Songsters & Saints'. Unfortunately, he ends his transcription at the 38 Special stanza. However, he goes on to note:

"Will Bennett's interpretation of the song has several more verses, but these are dissociated from the main theme. In his concluding stanza, he stated 'I'm goin' to the World in the Natchez Queen', making an oblique reference to the World's Fair, held in St Louis in 1904; an indication at least of the age of some of the verses he was using, and very probably an indication of the advanced age of the singer himself."
That line is written in italics to indicate that this is probably the last line given above by the transcriber.

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

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