Midnight Special

Album: Best Of Leadbelly (1936)
Play Video

Songfacts®:

  • 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, who charted with the song at #20 in 1965. One of the most popular covers is by Creedence Clearwater Revival, but the biggest chart hit was by Paul Evans in 1960, who took it to #16 when he was touring as a teen idol promoting "Seven Little Girls (Sitting In The Back Seat)."

    Evans told Songfacts: "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."
  • The train that provided the title got its name because it departed Jackson, Mississippi at 12:05 a.m. on Sunday mornings, arriving at Parchman Prison, 130 miles to the north, at dawn. The prison, also known as Parchman Farm (or more formally, Mississippi State Prison), was on thousands of acres of land, where the inmates did hard labor. While they worked, they would sometimes sing about the Midnight Special, which brought visits from friends and family, so for conjugal visits, the first of their kind.
  • 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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 trash can 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."

Comments: 7

  • John Peyton from Austin, TxHey Blues Fans! I love Songfacts and hate to say, but the above Lead Belly lyrics are way off. My great grandfather was Captain George Peyton of Houston PD Homicide, way back when. Lead Belly wrote: ...If you ever go to Houston / Boy, you better walk right / And you better not squabble / And you better not fight / Bass & Brock will arrest you / Peyton & Boone will take you down / You can bet your bottom dollar / That you're Sugarland bound / Let the Midnight Special… It's clear as day if you listen to Lead Belly's version. Of course the lyrics have been changed by many artists who have done a great justice (no pun) recording The Midnight Special. Ironically my oldest brother, also a Peyton was also a temporary resident in a Sugarland prison. Cheers all.
  • Ruth Modica from Dartford, Kent, EnglandThis story is fascinating and intriguing as I heard about it from watching an episode of Ghost Adventures starring Zak Bagans to whom I am an avid fan of, and pursued with my interest in it. I at first heard from somewhere that 'The Midnight Special' was a gun and I can guarantee I wasn't the only one, then Zak Bagans told his viewers different, so it looks like Zak was right as some tv presenter's can get there information wrong as I have discovered. So well done Zak and Thank you..
  • Susan from Atlanta, GeorgiaInteresting story, Matt from Dallas. I agree -- I love the CCR version. I also understand the kick of hearing the song in the prison it was written about; I get the same kick when I hear "I Was Born A Ramblin' Man" when I'm rollin' down Highway 41.

    James Best played Jim Lindsey in a couple of episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show"; in his second appearance, he and Andy sang this song, with Andy substituting "Deputy Fife will arrest you" in place of "and the sheriff he'll grab you".

    The TV show of the same name was on from 1972 to 1981, not just the late 1970s.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn February 27th 1960, Paul Evans performed "Midnight Special"* on the ABC-TV program the "Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show'...
    At the time the song was at #19 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; three weeks later on March 21st it would peaked at #16 {for 1 week} and it stayed on the chart for 13 weeks...
    He had a total of four Top 100 records with two of them making the Top 10; his other three charted records were "Seven Little Girls Sitting In the Back Seat" {#9 in 1959}, "Happy-Go-Lucky-Me" {#10 in 1960}, and "The Brigade of Broken Hearts" [#81 in 1960}...
    He composed Bobby Vinton's 1962 #1 hit "Roses Are Red (My Love)" and the Kalin Twins' 1958 #5 song "When"...
    Paul Evans will celebrated his 78th birthday in one week on March 5th {2016}...
    * On Paul Evan's Guaranteed Record label release, the song was spelled "Midnite Special".
  • Matt from DallasIt'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.
  • Pearl from Chino Valley, AzI 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.
  • Joe from Perth, Australiai always thought that this song meant the train was death coming to take you away from all this dreary day to day work and pointlessness
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Susanna Hoffs - "Eternal Flame"

Susanna Hoffs - "Eternal Flame"They're Playing My Song

The Prince-penned "Manic Monday" was the first song The Bangles heard coming from a car radio, but "Eternal Flame" is closest to Susanna's heart, perhaps because she sang it in "various states of undress."

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell NdegeocelloSongwriter Interviews

Meshell Ndegeocello talks about recording "Wild Night" with John Mellencamp, and explains why she shied away from the spotlight.

U2

U2Fact or Fiction

How did The Edge get his name? Did they name a song after a Tolkien book? And who is "Angel of Harlem" about?

What Musicians Are Related to Other Musicians?

What Musicians Are Related to Other Musicians?Song Writing

A big list of musical marriages and family relations ranging from the simple to the truly dysfunctional.

Tanita Tikaram

Tanita TikaramSongwriter Interviews

When she released her first album in 1988, Tanita became a UK singing sensation at age 19. She talks about her darkly sensual voice and quirky songwriting style.

Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders

Chrissie Hynde of The PretendersSongwriter Interviews

The rock revolutionist on songwriting, quitting smoking, and what she thinks of Rush Limbaugh using her song.