Mudcat Café message #1385097 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #21456   Message #1385097
Posted By: GUEST
22-Jan-05 - 08:30 AM
Thread Name: Origins: Railroad Bill
Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
Fascinating! C.B., you are really helping to fill in the gaps.

The Roba Stanley recording would seem to be the root of this long recorded song trail, though the song's tradition goes back at least nine years earlier. Her version is unusually full...lots of verses, including some that haven't survived. I've gleaned the following from Charles Wolfe, "Roba Stanley, The First Country Sweetheart," a biography / discography printed in Tony Russell's valuable Old Time Music magazine #26, 1977 (out of London). He interviewed Roba Stanley Baldwin in 1976-77 in Gainesville, Florida. Per that article (I summarize):

Roba Stanley first recorded at age 14 in August 1924 and made her last record a little over a year later (marriage at 15 ended her career, as "My husband didn't like for me to play in public much"). She was a chubby white girl who sang with guitar. Then she married, had three kids, later gave away her guitar, and the musical part of her life was pretty much over.

Obscure as she is (she made only four records for Okeh), she may have been the first solo woman singer to broadcast on radio and record country music. Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis were earlier, but Wolfe distinguishes between Roba's roots country music and their fiddle-and-banjo breakdowns.

Born in Dacula, GA (as I believe was Gid Tanner of Skillet Lickers fame), Roba was the daughter of R. M. "Rob" Stanley, a celebrated local fiddle champion whose house was a mecca for musicians near and far. By 1923 Roba was accompanying him for square dances. They debuted on WSB radio in early 1924.

Roba Stanley was, if not the earliest, among the earliest to record "Devilish Mary," the minstrel number "Mr. Chicken," "Frankie and Alvin" (her version of Frankie and Albert/Johnnie), a great "Single Life," and "Railroad Bill."

Where did she get the song? The article isn't specific. Wolfe concludes from his interviews with her that virtually all her songs were "picked up orally from sources in northeast Georgia." Roba made up some of her words. "I'd take me a piece of paper and write and get things to rhyme..."   So some of her verses may have been all or partly hers.

She was passing along a song that was already popular with blacks, if not yet with whites, and had apparently been composed sometime in the previous ten to fifteen years. It was first (as far as I know) reported from Auburn, AL and Lowndes County, AL in 1915 or 1916 in Newman I. White's American Negro Folk Songs, which gives the stanza,

    Railroad Bill did not know
    Dat Jim McMillan had a forty-fo'

and the related Roborus song of the same date:

    Roborus was a mighty mean man,
    He killed my son by the lighten flash.

The song caught fire in the next ten years. By 1925 Dorothy Scarborough in On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs was reporting the song widespread across the south from there to Mississippi.

Riley Puckett could have been Roba's source. He recorded the song slightly earlier than she did, though his record was released later. (She got there first...never underestimate singers' competitive streaks). The ever-popular, hugely recorded blind singer Puckett, with the Skillet Lickers and as soloist, did get some of his material from black tradition.

However, there's the intriguing possibility that Roba's source may have been a black singer she heard locally. That back porch of her father's...or all those places they "played out..." Perhaps the color line got crossed to the extent of a curious girl of, say, 13, stopping to listen to a black street singer on the edge of a shady part of town. But that's speculation.

                   Bob Coltman

Herewith, Roba Stanley's version of Railroad Bill. The local references may reflect her own alterations.


Railroad Bill, ought to be killed,
Got my home in Lawrenceville,
Oh, drive on, you Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, got so mean,
Walked all the way from New Orleans,
Oh, drive on, you Railroad Bill (repeats for every verse except the last)

Railroad Bill, got so fine,
Shot nine holes through a silver dime,

Drink up your whiskey, cross to the bar,
Pistol a-shining like a morning star,

Two dice in Cuba, three craps in Spain,
Spend all my money for gasoline,

Ought to been there when I got paid off,
Had more money than a walkin' boss,

Went to Dacula to get me some meat,
Stanley Brothers sell 'em cheap,

Went to Dacula to get me some flour,
Pool and Pounds they sell 'em higher,

Going to Atlanta, I'm on the nine,
Call up my honey away down the line,

Going to Atlanta, I'm going on the train,
Talk to my honey until she changes her name,

Went down to the creek to take off a run,
First man I seen was Henry McClung,

Went down on the creek to stay out of trouble,
First man I see was John T. Tuggle,

Went up on the mountain to get me a load,
Met Sheriff Garner in the middle of the road,
Oh, ride, ride, ride.

NOTE: Needless to say "Stanley Brothers" in verse 7 doesn't refer to the bluegrass pioneers (that would take time travel, and more coincidence than even traditional music can bear). Ms. Stanley explained it was a store in Dacula, as was Pool & Pounds in verse 8; these are prime candidates for local authorship and just could be Roba's own composition, as could the verses featuring McClung and Tuggle, then constable and deputy in Dacula, and Garner, sheriff in Lawrenceville.