Mudcat Café message #228519 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #21456   Message #228519
Posted By: Stewie
15-May-00 - 10:17 PM
Thread Name: Origins: Railroad Bill
Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
I don't know much about it except that it was a favourite in both the black and white traditions. The Traditional Ballad Index gives its earliest date (printed or recorded) as 1927. The writer of the note for the Ballad Index rejects as 'unproven' the theory that it related to a notorious badman by the name of Morris Slater (also known as Railroad Bill) who terrorised Florida and Alabama in the 1890s. However, Stephen Calt, in his notes to 'The Late Bill Williams: Blues, Rags and Ballads' Blue Goose 2013, had no hesitation in saying that it was 'a salute to a once-notorious Alabama train robber and one of the most famous pieces in black folk tradition'. Bill Williams' recording of the song is splendid - he was first discovered and recorded in 1970 in Kentucky when he was in his 70s!

In 'American Ballads and Folk Songs' the Lomaxes give a text and tune of the song from the black tradition. They assert that Railroad Bill was a completely legendary character. They point out that it is interesting that, in the song, he is captured by another black after eluding white law officers. The song has verses like:

Railroad Bill mighty bad man
Shoot dem light out o' de brakeman's han'
It's dat bad Railroad Bill

The entry in the DT refers to versions by white singers such as Cisco Houston and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. The earliest recording by a white artist was that by the great bluesman from West Virginia, Frank Hutchison. Frank recorded his version at his last recording session in 1929. It has been reissued on CD 'Old-Time Music from West Virginia' Document DOCD 8004.