Friday Night Concert: “Rock Island Line”
Here’s a gem — Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee performing “Rock Island Line” on Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television show, c. 1966. There were only 39 episodes of the show, which was broadcast locally in New York City by a (mostly) Spanish language UHF station. Very few people actually saw these episodes when they originally broadcast, even though they featured well-known performers like Johnny Cash, June Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers, and Judy Collins. Elizabeth Cotten, who was “discovered” by the Seegers in her middle age, performed on the show as well.
“Rock Island Line” was originally recorded by musical anthropologist John Lomax in 1934 in Arkansas, during a “collecting” trip across the South. He recorded a chorus of African American prisoners, with lead singer Kelly Pace. Lomax’s second recording had a strong gospel component. Five years later Lomax returned and recorded another version at the Cummins unit.
Many artists have recorded “Rock Island Line” since then, from Lead Belly (who accompanied Lomax on his first recording trip) to John Lennon and Paul McCartney and George Harrison and Paul Simon. But my favorite may be Little Richard:
“I may be right and I may be wrong, but you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone!”