Roots Music Break: The Midnight Special

One of my favorite Creedence songs has long been “Midnight Special.”

It always captivated me with lyrics that hint at a bigger story. Who is Miss Rosie? Why is her dude locked up? Who is “The Man” who gets mad when you complain about not having pork up in your pan?

I considered it a poetic critique of American life on the margins with some implied narrative that was a little fuzzy around the edges — much like “Proud Mary,” which CCR’s John Fogerty wrote — and didn’t investigate it further. Indeed, why would you need to when you’re too busy banging the dashboard to the beat on the back roads of Northern California?

Then, I discovered this:

That’s famous Louisiana blues man and sometimes jailbird Lead Belly singing with the Golden Gate Quartet, c. 1940.

This version of the song gave me goosebumps. There are additional lyrics that provide tantalizing details about the story. There are new, named characters: Sheriff Rocko (?), Eddie Boone, and “Jumpin little Judy.”

Well jumpin’ little Judy, she was a mighty fine girl
Well Judy brought jumpin’ to this whole round world
Well she brought it in the mornin’, just a while before day
She brought me the news, that my wife was dead
That started me to grievin’, then hollerin’ and a-cryin’
Then I had to give the worry about a been a long time

Putting the lyrics aside for a moment, the immediate conclusion one draws from listening to this rich, earlier version is that CCR, in an all too familiar pattern, took a song from an older African American writer, and brought it to a mass audience (and probably cashed in).

But it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. As Wikipedia explains, when Alan Lomax first recorded Lead Belly singing the song in 1934 during a stint in Louisiana’s Angola Prison (read its harrowing history), he also assumed Lead Belly was the author. A clue to the contrary lies in the lyrics of the song, which even in Lead Belly’s version tell a sketchy story at best.

Lead Belly wasn’t the author either — though he certainly deserves a huge amount of credit for his moving rendition. “Midnight Special” was a prison song — a folk tune whose lyrics were likely the product of years of circulation in the prisons of the South. There are many other versions besides Lead Belly’s and CCR’s, and not just covers but other prison versions. You can listen to at least one on the Library of Congress website: Burruss Johnson’s “De Funiac Blues,” recorded at the Florida State Penitentiary in 1939.

One of the details of the lyrics to Lead Belly’s version whose meaning we can almost nail down is that the song’s title and refrain likely refer to a train that ran by a prison in Texas, and shone its lights through the windows onto prisoners. That light symbolized escape, either as a route away from the prison, or a route out of this life.

The lyrics are a fragmentary story for a reason — they are fragments, of the lives of many long-suffering Southern men from the early part of the 20th century, assembled in a song that displays them like a kaleidoscope.

Knowing all this, the song feels like a bit of alternative history, arising from the masses of those who didn’t have the ability to write a more formal version. Maybe my original interpretation wasn’t so far off after all.

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