“Railroad Bill”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1911 (Odum, according to Cohen)
Keywords: rambling robbery crime death train
Found in: US(SE)

Description

Railroad Bill "never worked and never will"; he drinks, steals, and travels from town to town. His career finally ends when he is shot (and/or arrested). To the very end, all he does is "ride, ride, ride"

Notes

Burt reports that Morris Slater, known as "Railroad Bill," "terrorized" Florida and Alabama from 1894 to 1897, initially robbing freight trains, but later perhaps branching out; an Alabana deputy was killed during the saga, and Slater was blamed.

Slater was eventually surrounded and surprised in a grocery, "eating crackers and cheese"; he probably could have been taken, but the posse shot him instead.

Burt's version of the ballad specifically mentions the crackers and cheese, but Laws is rather cautious in reporting Burt's story, and I have to agree with him: I don't think we can prove Burt's Alabama version (published 1927) to be the original.

Cohen adds even more data, noting a number of the parts of "Railroad Bill" seem to precede Slater. Either there was another "Railroad Bill," or the song adapted a large number of other railrod bits. - RBW

Historical references

Recordings

References

  1. Laws I13, "Railroad Bill"
  2. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 122-131, "Railroad Bill" (2 texts plus many excerpts, 1 tune)
  3. Sandburg, pp. 384-385, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune -- perhaps bowdlerized to eliminate Bill's death)
  4. BrownIII 504, "A Thirty-Two Special on a Forty-Four Frame" (1 two-line fragment, with lyrics sometimes associated with this song)
  5. Scarborough-NegroFS, pp. 251-253, "It's Lookin' fer Railroad Bill" (2 texts plus some small pieces, which might be "Joseph Mica" rather than this)
  6. Lomax-FSNA 304, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 118-120, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Burt, pp. 201-202, "(Railroad Bill)" (1 text)
  9. Cohen/Seeger/Wood, p. 148, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Darling-NAS, pp. 240-242, "Railroad Bill" (2 texts)
  11. Silber-FSWB, p. 99 "Railroad Bill" (1 text)
  12. DT 662, (RRBILL*)
  13. Roud #4181
  14. BI, LI13