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Published on Sep 10, 2011
In 1934 John Lomax with the help of Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) made the first two recordings of "Rock Island Line", a song that would become world-famous later. A tall tale in rhyme, the song's subject is a train so fast that it arrives at its destination in Little Rock (at 8:49) before its departure from Memphis (at "half past nine").
They arrived in Arkansas in late September and worked first in Little Rock and then at the Tucker and Cummins prison farms to the south. In recording the second version they for the first time encountered Kelly Pace - a petty criminal but an outstanding prison singer. (Pace would eventually contribute more than thirty performances to the Library of Congress archives.)
Lomax made additional recording trips to Arkansas prisons in 1939 and 1942, unaccompanied by Ledbetter. Pace was a free man at the time of the 1939 visit, but Lomax collected a third version of "The Rock Island Line," this time in Cummins Prison. Listen to that recording here: http://youtu.be/5qWpAgoJHUk
By 1942, Pace was back in stir, sent up for forty-two years for stealing a car, and once again he was the star, performing some twenty-six songs as a soloist or member of a larger group. One of these is a fourth performance of "The Rock Island Line," the last version collected in Arkansas by Lomax.
In the meantime Ledbetter immediately recognized the potential of the tune and eventually played a major role in making it famous. He recorded it many times, first for folksong collectors at the Library of Congress in 1937 and later for commercial labels (RCA Victor in 1940 and Capitol in 1944, among others).