“The Rock Island Line (I)”


"The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road, The Rock Island Line is the road to ride." About life in general, engineering on the Rock Island Line, and anything else that can be zipped into the song


How much of this is genuinely "folk" is hard to tell. The earliest version collected [was] at Cummins Prison Farm (Arkansas) in 1934. The collection was made by John & Ruby Lomax; Lead Belly was their driver. Working from this and perhaps some floating material, Lead Belly created a song which he interspersed with patter about railroad work. The Weavers regularized this, and Alan Lomax added "new material"; one wonders if the prisoners would have recognized the result. - PJS, RBW

One of the verses found in revival versions is present [in the Pace recording on 1934], ("Jesus died to save me in all of my sin/Glory to God, we goin' to meet Him again"), as is the standard chorus.

Mr. Pace's name is spelled "Kelly" throughout LC8, but,"Kelley" on LC10. I have no idea which is correct. - PJS

Cohen uses the spelling "Kelly Pace," but of course he may have had the same problem.

Cohen also documents the evolution of the song, which apparently began as an Arkansas work song. Lead Belly, as noted, probably learned it in 1934. When he recorded it for the Library of Congress in 1937, he used a subset of the Pace verses, with a line of patter about cutting trees; the song is still a work song.

When Lead Belly recorded it again in 1944 for Capitol, he had added a couple of verses not from Pace ("I may be right and I may be wrong"; "A-B-C double X-Y-Z") and had a new line of railroad patter. Soon after, he recorded it for Folkways, in what seems to have become the canonical version, ending with him telling the rainroad agent, "I fooled you."

It's unfortunate we don't have more information about how Lead Belly performed the song in concert in these years. It's quite a demonstration of "live fire" folk process, though. - RBW.


  • Kelly Pace & group of prisoners, "Rock Island Line" (AFS 248 A1, 1934; on LC8, LCTreas)


  1. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 472-477, "The Rock Island Line" (3 texts, 1 tune)
  2. Silber-FSWB, p. 102, "Rock Island Line" (1 text)
  4. Roud #15211
  5. BI, FSWB102


Author: unknown (heavily adapted by Huddie Ledbetter)
Earliest date: 1934 (recording, Kelly Pace et al)
Found in: US(So)