'Rock Island Line' evolved from the rhythm of hard labor

Jan 27, 2012

Blues evolved from many different sources including spirituals, work songs, and chants. “Rock Island Line” began as a work song, first recorded in 1934 by prisoners at Cummins Farm in Arkansas. The rhythm of physical labor is integral to songs like these.

Whether breaking up rocks or chopping wood, work songs help to keep a group of men working in time with each other.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, had been a prisoner himself at Cummins Farm, and likely learned Rock Island Line while incarcerated. He recorded the song several times, the version we chose is from 1949. Leadbelly is responsible for bringing dozens of American folk songs like “Goodnight Irene” and “See See Rider” into popular culture. Here is a 1945 film of Leadbelly performing another work song, “Take This Hammer”:

In 1955 a whole generation of British musicians were influenced by the country blues of Leadbelly, when Lonnie Donegan had a major hit with “Rock Island Line”. It was the era of “skiffle” music, the formative period for future stars Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Van Morrison. Here’s some footage from the 1950’s featuring Lonnie Donegan:

American acoustic blueswoman Rory Block has devoted her career to honoring the work of early players like Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charley Patton and many others.

She recorded “Rock Island Line” in 2002 with Paul Rishell and Annie Raines.

In the late 1990s the term “trance blues” hadn’t been coined, but composers like Greg Hale Jones were taking early Library of Congress recordings and using them as a starting point for electronic music pieces. He used samples from the 1934 recording at Cummins Prison to create “Mighty Good Road” which came out in 1998.

Here are the full versions of “Rock Island Line” tracked through time:

Inmates at Cummins Prison Farm: “Rock Island Line” 1934

Leadbelly: “Rock Island Line” 1949

Greg Hale Jones “Mighty Good Road” 1998

Rory Block “Rock Island Line” 2002