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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.
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."