The Midnight Special: Origins & Sources
The Midnight Special was a train—which train, exactly, depends on who’s telling the story. Before delving in to the significance of any version of the song’s lyrics, we’ll start with the simple part:
Folklorist Norm Cohen wrote an excellent chapter about this song in his book, Long Steel Rail, where he notes the melody of The Midnight Special is, “in part, a variant of the 1900 ragtime pop tune ‘Creole Belles.’” Various sources acknowledge that, by the time “The Midnight Special” began to be recorded in the 1920s, variants of this song’s melody were being sung and recorded in many parts of the south (under many different titles).
In tracing the paths of such a song, we first acknowledge that our ignorance is far greater than our knowledge - regarding both the tune and the lyrics. It’s likely that many people passed this song’s melody around in social settings while few of them ever played it into any recording device. Cohen's aforementioned book observes that “The Watts and Wilson 1927 version, ‘Walk Right in Belmont,’ is of interest not only because it [was recorded] fairly early, but also because it has been localized to North Carolina…”
This is a strong example of how music was passed around before popular recordings began to establish more stable versions of American melodies. A song like ‘Creole Belles,’ became popular at a time when countless thousands of Americans learned and shared songs through playing music themselves—learning by ear or from sheet music. Then, musicians who had the song—originally composed for ragtime piano—in their heads and ears began to do their own thing with it. It became a flexible, simple, highly transmittable eight measure-long melodic phrase that could be varied atop a repeated set of three chords.
By the time the song had percolated in the consciousness, fingers, voices and stories of American musicians for twenty years, people from Oklahoma to Mississippi and North Carolina were bending the melody and words to their own uses.
During that mysterious two plus decades—from 1900 to 1923—only rare, invaluable humans like Howard W. Odum (an early collector of Black American folklore) bothered to document any form of this type of song. In 1911, Odum printed the following couplet:
“Get up in the mornin’ when ding dong rings / Look at table—see same damn things.”
We don’t know what melody accompanied these words, but by 1923 a version of “The Midnight Special” was printed in Adventure magazine. Additional versions were put in print in 1927, Carl Sandberg’s American Songbag among them.
By the time the iconic songster Huddie Leadbetter - aka “Leadbelly” - was recorded singing The Midnight Special in prison in 1934, it had been bouncing around in many communities for well over a decade. Leadbelly’s lyrics from a later recorded version—done with the Golden Gate Vocal Quartet in 1940—are transcribed below.
Like the aforementioned Watts & Wilson, Leadbelly continued the tradition of localizing the events and characters in the song. But why, we have yet to ask, does the singer want the light of the train to “shine on me”?
In his excellent book, “Songsters & Saints,” Paul Oliver classifies “The Midnight Special” as a “nodal ballad” - one that tells a story without a strict sequence, with a key topic or event surrounded by observations or more loosely related lyrics. In part, this method of storytelling developed due to the fact that Black Americans had to shroud their messages in code, slang, suggestive images and hyperbole to keep from endangering themselves by telling the story plainly.
This, combined with good old poetic expression, is no doubt part of the reason that there are many things that the light of The Midnight Special could signify.
One of the stories, according to Paul Oliver, “include the widespread belief that prisoners were permitted conjugal visits in Southern Penitentiaries.” Another story goes that, if you were touched by the light of the Special train, you were bound to be freed from prison. Or, is the singer done with this life, and—like the blues verse quoted below—craving the ultimate release?
“I’m goin’ to lay, lay my head
On some lonesome railroad iron,
I’m gon’ let that 2:19 train,
Pacify my mind.”
Ultimately, it a song like any song—the singer puts their spin on it, and may never tell us just what meaning they intend. Whatever you mean, whatever way you choose to sing it—the important thing is that you reflect your own story, and you do it with real feeling.
- Joe Seamons, August of 2021
Join The Rhapsody Project’s Song of the Month program by learning this song, playing it with friends, and sharing your own version!
This version is in C major, for singers that want to sing the melody but are more comfortable in this key (see versions in G major at the links below).
Explore the following resources to learn more about The Midnight Special:
Songsters & Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records - Paul Oliver
Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folk Song - Norm Cohen
American Ballads & Songs - John & Alan Lomax
Yonder comes Miss Rosie.
How in the world do you know?
Well, I know her by the apron
and the dress she wore.
Umbrella on her shoulder,
Piece of paper in her hand,
Well, I’m gonna ask the the governor,
“Please turn loose my man.”
Let the Midnight Special shine its light on me.
Oh let the Midnight Special shine its ever lovin' light on me.
When you get up in the morning,
When that big bell ring.
You go marching to the table
You meet the same old thing.
Knife and fork are on the table
There’s nothing in my pan./
And if you say a thing about it,
have a trouble with the man.
If you ever go to Houston,
Boys, you better walk right,
And you better not squabble
And you better not fight.
Benson Crocker will arrest you,
Jimmy Boone will take you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar
You’re penitentiary bound.
Well, jumping Little Judy,
She was a mighty fine girl.
She brought jumping
To the whole round world.
Well, she brought it in the morning
Just a while before day.
She brought me the news
That my wife was dead.
That started me to grieving,
Then hollerin’ and crying.
Then I began to worry
About a great long time.
Additional verses are printed in John & Alan Lomax’s collection “American Ballads and Folk Songs.”