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Midnight Special by Leadbelly

Album: Best Of LeadbellyReleased: 1936
  • According to folk music historian Alan Lomax as documented in the book Folk Song USA, the Midnight Special was a real train: the Southern Pacific Golden Gate Limited. A traditional folk song, Leadbelly popularized it upon his release from Sugar Land prison in Texas, where he could hear the Midnight Special come through. In the song, the light of the train gives the inmates hope - if it shines on them they take it as a sign they will soon go free.
  • Many Blues artists have recorded this song, but it was also covered by musicians of many styles like ABBA, Van Morrison and Johnny Rivers. One of the most popular covers is by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and it was a #16 US hit for Paul Evans in 1960 when he was touring as a teen idol promoting "Seven Little Girls (Sitting In The Back Seat)." Evans told us: "Real, real folk singers always did that song. I cut it 'cause I loved it, that's it. [John Fogerty] told an interviewer why he eventually cut the song. 'I once heard a record made by a Paul Evans, and I liked it a lot. And I did it his way, except we just rocked it up a little more.' You know, these are little joys you get as you travel through life, to have a star of that magnitude say that on that song he heard my record and liked it enough to want to record it himself." (Check out our interview with Paul Evans.)
  • This was used as the theme to a popular TV show in the late 1970s called The Midnight Special. It was hosted by Robert Westin Smith, also known as the famous American DJ Wolfman Jack. (thanks, Patrick - Bremen, GA)
  • The 1962 recording of "Midnight Special" by the Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte is notable for containing the very first official recording of Bob Dylan, who played harmonica. Belafonte told Mojo magazine July 2010 how it came about. He recalled: "It was supposed to be Sonny Terry, but he got grounded by a thunderstorm in Memphis and couldn't make the date. My guitarist Millard Thomas said, "Well, there's this kid I see all the time down the village and he does that whole Sonny thing… he sleeps and dreams it.' So I said, 'We don't have a choice, I guess. Go find him.'
    And this skinny kid appeared, and he had a paper sack with him full of harmonicas in different keys. I played the song for him and he pulled one out of the bag, dipped it in water and played it through a single take, and it was great. I loved it. I asked him if he wanted to try another take and he said, 'No.' He just headed for the door, and threw the harmonica into the trashcan on his way out.
    I remember thinking, Does he have that much disdain for what I'm doing? But I found out later that he bought his harps at the Woolworth drugstore. They were cheap ones, and once he'd gotten them wet and really played through them as hard as he did, they were finished. It wasn't until decades later, when he wrote his book (Chronicles), that I read what he really felt about me, and I tell you, I got very, very choked up. I had admired him all along, and no matter what he did or said, I was just a stone, stone fan."
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Comments: 3

It's a funny, odd, sad and hilarious for me to hear this song. Its really a old Blues song by what was described to me as traveling misfits, hobos and blues musicians about the Sugar Land Texas TDC prison in the late 1920's. Nobody was ever sure about who wrote it. There's a semi Hollywood quasi true story about a Sugar Land prison escape from the 70's. Has Goldie Hawn in it, so naturally I loved it. Otherwise Sugar Land is an unknown prison in South Texas.

I was locked up in Sugar Land in the 80's. Pretty quite easy going Texas Farm for convicts. Most of you will never understand the difference between convicts and inmates, just be assured, the difference is black and white and race gots nothing to do with it. We did our time quietly in Sugar Land.

Captain McKnight (I can still spell his name after all these years) used to listen to an old blues station out of the Central Unit, about as close as you could get a signal from Sugar Land. Lead Belly was his cousin and they played this song a lot. I was a kitchen clerk (convict) and he would get so excited when the song played it would piss the Major off. We'd dance around the kitchen to it. It sounded way different than CCR's version, and I liked CCR's version better. But still, you're locked up and someone is singing about the prison you're standing in. Like I said, it's a funny, odd, sad and hilarious to hear while standing in the kitchen at 3AM cooking breakfast.

There was a train that went by at 1 AM and if you happened to be in Cell block C in Cell 1,2,3, 4 or 5 and the light shined on you, pack you stuff, you're girl saw the governor. But, the engineer didn't always have his light on. Don't ask me why? Maybe it was for varmints on the track. I can only guess. But when he did, you were going home sure as the sun rises.

And that's the Midnight Special from Texas State Prison Sugar Land Texas.
Matt - Dallas
I heard,that if the light from the train shone on a prisoner, they were about to be set free. in the song, it says, 'let the midnight special shine the light on me'. if you read the lyrics with this in mind, it makes sence.Pearl - Chino Valley, Az
i always thought that this song meant the train was death coming to take you away from all this dreary day to day work and pointlessnessJoe - Perth, Australia