"Midnight Special" is a traditional folk song thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South. The title comes from the refrain which refers to the passenger train Midnight Special and its "ever-loving light" (sometimes "ever-living light").
- Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,
- Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me. (Traditional)
There seems to be general agreement that it was a train, but beyond that, ideas vary.
In "Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs" it says: Many legends are connected with this jail song. One, told by Pete Seeger, is the belief among some of the prisoners that if the light from the midnight special, as it passed the prison, should fall on a man sleeping in his cell, that man would go free.
"The American Songbag" (Carl Sandburg) has two versions, each with its own explanation.
One version on page 26: And her man considers that he has twenty years yet to serve, he cries out that he would rather be under the wheels of a fast midnight train.
And the second version on page 217: A fast train, such as "The Midnight Special," means a getaway, outside air, freedom. And it's this particular version, that was copied by various artists.
During the 1950's folksong revival, a favorite at hootenannies and concerts was this Texas prisoner's song. The Lomaxes wrote that the Midnight Special was the Golden Gate Limited, departing from Houston's Southern Pacific depot at midnight for San Antonio, El Paso, and points west. Thirty miles out of Houston, the Midnight Special shone its light through the barred windows at the Texas state prison farm at Sugarland, reminding the inmates of the light and freedom on the other side of the prison walls.
The Midnight Special was the name of a passenger train formerly operated by the Chicago and Alton Railroad and its successor, the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad. The train ran on an overnight schedule, and in later years carried the last regularly scheduled Pullman sleeping car between Chicago, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri. The train made its final run on April 30, 1971, although Amtrak continued several other passenger trains over the same route traversed by the Midnight Special.
The first recorded version of the song "Midnight Special" by Dave Cutrell was recorded in St Louis, so there's the connection to the Midnight Special that drove from Chicago to St Louis.
So the Midnight Special is NOT the same train as in the famous Leadbelly song "Midnight Special"
Some have written that the song refers to the Southern Pacific's Golden Gate Limited, but NO train by that name ever ran on the Southern Pacific.
More likely Leadbelly's version refers to the Missouri Pacific's Houston to New Orleans train called the HOUSTONIAN which departed Houston's Union Station shortly before midnight.
In an engrossing examination titled "A Who's Who of "The Midnight Special,'" Texas folklorist Mack McCormick traced the individuals named in some versions of the song (especially Leadbelly's) to a 1923 incident. Jack Smith, a bank robber sentenced to twenty-five years' hard labor, broke out of the Houston county jail while waiting for the transfer man, Uncle Bud Russell, who was due to arrive shortly to take him to the state penitentiary. Smith was captured a few hours later by Houston sheriff T.A. Binfor. Four other Houston law officers of that time were memorialized in one of Leadbelly's stanzas.
Payton and Boone will take you down,
Oh, the judge will sentence you,
McCormick's researches do not prove that the "The Midnight Special" originated at the time of this 1923 jailbreak. It seems more probable that Leadbelly and others set the details of that event into the framework of an earlier, well-established traditional song. The strongest evidence for this assumption is that the song appeared widely throughout the South within a very few years after 1923, and invariably in versions that did not mention any of the individuals associated with the Houston events of 1923. That some elements of "The Midnight Special" are far older than the song as a whole is attested by verses in the "Grade Song" that was printed by Howard W. Odum in 1911 in "Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes." JAF24 (Oct-Dec 1911,
Especially one of the last verses is literally copied in "Midnight Special"
"Get up in mornin' when ding dong rings,
Look at table - see same damn things".
The earliest reference to the song was in a letter to Robert W. Gordon, then conducting the column "Old Songs That Men Have Sung" in Adventure magazine. Dated August 3, 1923, the letter requested additional verses of the song, and gave one verse ("If you go to the city, you better go right . . .") and chorus.
As I said Carl Sandburg published two variants in his 1927 anthology American Songbag, both without attribution. A frequent source of Sandburg's material was Robert W. Gordon's immense manuscript collection of folksongs, gathered during the several years' correspondence with readers in his column. Another of Gordon's correspondents, Terril McKay, sent Gordon a song he called simple "Jail Song" that he had heard several years earlier, in the fall of 1923, in the Harris County Jail in Houston. Except for a few adjustments in the use of dialect, and the change of Judge Robinson's name to Judge Nelson, this song is identical with one of the two that Sandburg printed )p.217). Gordon himself printed a fragment of the song in one of a series of columns on folksongs that he published in the New York times in 1927. In McKay's version, Sheriff Binford became T. Bentley.
The first commercial recording of "The Midnight Special" was made in 1926, by Dave Cutrell, with McGinty's Oklahoma Cowboy Band for the OKeh label.
Cutrell follows the traditional song except for semi-comedic stanzas about McGinty and Gray and "a cowboy band"
PISTOL PETE'S MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Chorus and 1st. verse:
Wake up in the mornin', hear the ding-dong ring,
Go marchin' to the table and there's the same old thing.
Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me.
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me.
Yonder comes my woman. How do you know?
I can tell her by her apron and the dress she wore.
Umbrella on her shoulder, piece of paper in her hand,
Marching down to the captain, she says, "I wants my man."
I never had the blues so in all my life before,
Than when my baby left me, at the jailhouse door.
Oh, she left me crying, the tears rolled down her face,
Says, "I'd rather see you dead, boy, than in this place."
Now, Mister McGinty is a good man,
But he's run away now with a cowboy band.
Now Otto Gray, he's a Stillwater man.
But he's manager now of a cowboy band.
When you get to the city, boys, you better have the [bail?],
Or the law, they'll arrest you, and they'll put you in jail.
The judge he'll fine you, they'll shake you down,
If you haven't got the money, boys, you're jailhouse bound.
If you got a good man, woman, you better keep him at home,
For those city women won't leave him alone.
They'll paint and powder, they sure look swell,
And the first thing you know, woman, your man's gone to h---.
(o) Dave Cutrell: "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special,"
Dave Cutrell: vocal; probably accompanied by own guitar.
Recorded May 11, 1926, in St. Louis, MO;
OKeh Master 9650-A,
Released on OKeh 45057, ca. Sept. 1926.
(Despite the label credit to McGinty's Oklahoma Cow Boy Band as accompanists, the instrumentation is as shown, the B-side of Okeh 45057 however, is by McGinty's Oklahoma Cow Boy Band).
Here's a picture of Dave Cutrell with mandolin.
Listen to "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special" here:
Billy McGinty was not a musician, but he was an early cowboy and a member of Teddy Roosevelt's "Rough Riders." Billy McGinty organized and possibly financed this group but may not have been one of the musicians.
Otto Gray was the real director of this group.
SEE PAGE 8 and 9 of the following PDF-file for information on Otto Gray's group and a photograph of him and his group. Dave Cutrell is possibly the cowboy with the mandolin second from right on the photograph.
In March 1929, the band, now Otto Gray and the Oklahoma Cowboys, recorded the song again, this time with the traditional title, using only the traditional lyrics. It was released on Vocalion 5337.
Otto Gray And His Cowboy Band* - I Can't Change It / Midnight Special (Shellac) at Discogs
Earlier in the same year (in March 1926) there was a recording by Greening's Dance Orchestra (a dance-orchestra from London, UK).
Their "On The Midnight Special" has a rather different melody; only Lionel Rothery's sparse vocal line more than halfway through the performance taps from the same source as all the American Midnight Specials: "On the Midnight Special, Shine a light on me..." The English melody is credited to Irving King, which is probably an alias for Jimmy Campbell and Reginald Connelly, authors of "Try A Little Tenderness" and "If I Had You".
"On The Midnight Special" was recorded on March 6, 1926
Released on Imperial 1590 (matrix 4536-1)
Greening's Dance Orchestra - On The Midnight Special / Barcelona (Shellac) at Discogs
Listen here (at about 2 min and 15 sec) in the next musicfile:
3 days later the same orchestra recorded the same song under the alias Mimosa Dance Orchestra.
Released on Mimosa P-19 (Matrix E-189)
Although later versions place the locale of the song near Houston, early versions such as "Walk Right In Belmont" (Wilmer Watts; Frank Wilson, 1927) and "North Carolina Blues" (Roy Martin, 1930) — both essentially the same song as "Midnight Special" — place it in North Carolina
(c) Watts and Wilson "Walk Right In Belmont" (1927) on Paramount 3019-A
At their April 1927 session in Chicago, Watts and Wilson, accompanied by Charles H. Freshour on guitar, waxed seven selections, one of which, "Walk Right in Belmont", is a reworking of "Midnight Special", Freshour, who reportedly wrote "Walk Right in Belmont", probably sings lead on this recording. Paramount released "Walk Right in Belmont" in its new “Old Time Tunes” series, credited only to “Watts and Wilson,” on the A-side of the next 78:
Here's "Walk Right In Belmont"
(c) Roy Martin (= Lewis McDaniels) and his Guitar (1930) (as "North Carolina Blues")
Recorded March 28, 1930 in New York.
Released on Jewel 20006, Oriole 8006, Perfect 144 and Romeo 5006.
Listen here (especially THE LYRICS)
Listen here to a sample:
And here are some more versions of " Midnight Special"
(c) Sam Collins (1927) (as "MIDNIGHT SPECIAL BLUES")
Date: September 17, 1927
Released on Gennett Label: 6307
Sam Collins version also follows the traditional style. His is the first to name the woman in the story, Little Nora, and he refers to the Midnight Special's "ever-living" light.
Yonder come a Little Nora. How in the world do you know?
I know by the apron and the dress she wears.
(c) Romeo Nelson (1930) (as "1129 Blues (The Midnight Special)")
Recorded Feb 1930 in Chicago.
This rare recording by Romeo Nelson, was released on the Vocalion-label:
(c) Bill Cox (1933)
Bill Cox (vocal, harmomica and guitar)
Recorded August 30, 1933 in New York
Released on 7 different labels: Banner 32891, Melotone M12797, Melotone (Canadian) 91653, Oriole 8271, Perfect 12942, Romeo 5271, Conqueror 8230, Panachord 25626
(c) Fiddlin’ John Carson (1934) (as "Stockade Blues")
Recorded February 28, 1934 in Camden NJ.
Fiddlin' John Carson: guitar and vocals
Moonshine Kate: guitar and vocals
Marion "Peanut" Brown: vocals
Released on Bluebird B5447
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Ernest "Mexico" Williams, "Midnight Special" (AFS CYL-11-5, 1933)
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Jesse Bradley, "Midnight Special" (AFS 218 A1, 1934)
(c) Frank Jordan & Group, "Midnight Special" (AFS 619 A1, 1936)
(c) State Street Boys (1935)
Recorded Chicago, January 10, 1935
Harmonica – Jazz Gillum
Piano – Black Bob
Violin – Zeb Wright
Vocals and Guitar – Big Bill Broonzy
(c) Leadbelly (1934)
The person most responsible for spreading the popularity of "The Midnight Special" was doubtless Huddie Leadbetter. "Leadbelly"..recorded the song several times in his career. The earliest was in July 1934 when John Lomax recorded him for the Library of Congress in the Louisiana State Prison Farm at Angola. (AFS 124A-1)
Released in 1965 on Elektra EKL 301/302
(c) Leadbelly (1935)
The next year Lead Belly recorded "Midnight Special" in Wilton, Connecticut (AFS 133A)
(c) Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Quartet (1940)
Recorded June 15, 1940 in New York
Released on Victor 27266.
(c) Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston (1946)
And in 1946 Leadbelly recorded a version with Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, that was released on the next album:
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Delmore Brothers (1945)
(c) The Weavers and Gordon Jenkins Orchestra (1952)
Released in Decca 28272 (#30 Hit in USA)
(c) Joe Turner and His Blues Kings 1956 (as "Midnight Special Train")
Recorded November 20, 1956 in New York) .
Released December 1956 on Atlantic 1122
(c) Josh White (1957)
Listen here: Click "PLAY" in the next link
(c) Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper had a top 5 country hit with the song in 1959 as "Big Midnight Special".
Listen and see them here in a 1963 show from the Opryland Library
(c) Paul Evans (1960) (as "Midnite Special") (#16 Hit USA)
(c) Harry Belafonte (1962) (titlesong of album)
(with a certain mister Robert Zimmerman on harmonica).
(c) Johnny Rivers (Live at the Whisky A Go Go) (1965) (US hit)
Johnny Rivers' 1965 version was used as the theme song for the 1972-1981 NBC music-variety series of the same name, The Midnight Special.
Listen here and see him here:
(c) Van Morrison 1967
(c) The Beatles in 1969 during their Get Back Sessions.
Also covered by McCartney on his live Unplugged album as well as a regular part of McCartney's sound check set.
(c) Johnny Cash & June Carter 1970 (as "Big Midnight Special")
Recorded November 11, 1970 at The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville Tenn.
Aired on ABC Television for Johnny Cash's TV Show.
(c) Creedence Clearwater Revival 1970
Listen and see them here:
(c) Little Richard 1971
On Audio album King of Rock and Roll (1971)
(c) Mungo Jerry 1971
Listen and see him here:
(c) in 1974 by the Dutch band CCC Inc on the album "CCC Forever"
Listen to a sample here:
(c) ABBA sang a medley of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton/On Top Of Old Smokey/Midnight Special"
Recording began on 6 May 1975 at Glen Studio. It remains ABBA's only release of material not written by themselves, and was originally released on the 1975 German charity album "Stars Im Zeichen Eines Guten Sterns". In 1978, it featured (with a slight audio tweak, for many years mistakenly referred to as a 'remix') as the B-side of the "Summer Night City" single.
(c) Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee 1977
Recorded in 1977 for the album "Midnight Special"
(c) Drukwerk (1982) (as "Schijn een lichtje op mij") (#5 in the Dutch Charts)
Here you can hear a few more versions:
And here much more versions:
The "Midnight Special" tune is, in part, a variant of the chorus of the 1900 ragtime pop tune "Creole Belles".
Composed by Jens Bodewalt Lampe:
The part which is similar to the tune of "Midnight Special", is the part from 43 seconds in the next YT.
That part was also used by Mississippi John Hurt for his "My Creole Belle".
"Midnight Special's" TUNE, is ALSO VERY SIMILAR to the old (19th century??) negro spiritual "Let The Church Roll On".
The oldest recording seems to be made by the Rev C.D. Montgomery on January 31, 1925
Released on the Columbia-label (#15023-D) (as "Who Was Job ? part II")
Interestingly, this record of a black preacher was pressed on the Hillbilly 15,000 series to be marketed to a Southern white audience.
(c) Norfolk Jubilee Quartet in (October 1926 on Paramount 12468)
(c) Mount Zion Baptist Quartet (March 9, 1927 on Victor 20582)
(c) Thankful Qt (March 19, 1927 on Okeh 84573)
(c) Rev. Sim (April 18, 1927 on Gennett 6123)
(c) Cornfed Four (November 6, 1930 on Okeh 8841)
(c) Carter Family (May 25, 1931 on Victor 23618)
Listen to a sample here:
"Sail Away Ladies" also uses a TUNE that is similar to "Midnight Special".
Listen to Uncle Dave Macon's version from 1927.
NOT to be confused with Sodarisa Miller's "Midnight Special" (1925) (on Paramount 12306), which is another song. It was an answer song to "The Sunshine Special".