The great American songster Lead Belly, first recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1933, is a towering figure in global popular music. In some cases, his influence can be clouded, or hard to understand, because of his own enigmatic personality and because of the fragmentary nature of the records he left behind. In this post, we’ll look at a small question that has arisen about Lead Belly in hopes of shedding light on one of his most important songs, “Rock Island Line,” which started the “skiffle” craze in England and thus helped lead to the development of English rock and roll in the 1960s. The question is: did Lead Belly say a train was coming from New Orleans, or was that a later innovation by another singer, possibly by the Scottish-born English skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan?
Raising the Question
The English singer, songwriter, and author Billy Bragg recently visited the Library of Congress to discuss his new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. (You can watch his talk here.) It was Bragg who raised the question in my mind of whether Lead Belly was indeed referring to New Orleans. In his book, he gives a thorough account of the progress the railroad anthem “Rock Island Line” made from an Arkansas prison gang to the British pop charts. As he recounts, John A. Lomax collected “Rock Island Line” from an Arkansas prison work group led by Kelly Pace in 1934. You can hear that recording here and also here. Acting as Lomax’s field assistant, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, participated in collecting the song. He later learned it himself and began to perform it in the late 1930s.
Lead Belly recorded “Rock Island Line” at least ten times between June 1937 and his death in December 1949. During this time, Lead Belly developed an entertaining story or monologue to introduce the song.  Most versions of the monologue involve an engineer communicating with a “depot agent” about the cargo he has on board. Aware that certain types of cargo, such as animals or fresh fruit, took precedence over others, Lead Belly imagined a scenario in which the depot agent is about to make an oncoming freight train go “in the hole,” in other words, wait on a side track until a higher-priority train passes. The train’s engineer uses his whistle to tell the depot agent that he has livestock onboard, which establishes his right to continue without being sidetracked. The depot agent allows him to pass. In an early version of the monologue, Lead Belly has the engineer whistle “I thank you! I thank you!” as he passes. In later versions, he whistles “I fooled you! I fooled you! I got pig iron, I got pig iron, I got all pig iron!” Lead Belly used the monologue to suggest that southern railroad engineers had particularly expressive ways to use a steam whistle, adding cultural context that he felt would be interesting to his audience. 
As Billy Bragg also points out, much of this monologue was retained when Lonnie Donegan covered the song in 1954, leading to a massive hit in 1955 and 1956. Donegan made his own changes to the monologue: he removed Lead Belly’s references to switching tracks and “going in the hole,” and removed all reference to the whistle, making the engineer simply shout to the depot agent. Most importantly, he added a tollgate to the railroad. Apparently not understanding Lead Belly’s scenario of one train having to make way for another by waiting “in the hole” on a side track, he decided the depot agent must have been levying a toll, from which the livestock made that particular train exempt. 
By pointing out that the toll gate was added to the song by Lonnie Donegan, Bragg performed a valuable service to researchers who might not have noticed that detail: it’s now possible to say definitively that some versions of the song, such as Johnny Cash’s, were learned from Lonnie Donegan rather than from Lead Belly, since they feature the telltale tollgate.
In Bragg’s account of all this, you’ll find a surprising passage:
In October 1944…Lead Belly, out in Hollywood hoping to make a career in movies, recorded the song for Columbia Records, backed by Paul Mason Howard on zither. He begins the introduction by telling us the Rock Island Line train is out of ‘Mule-een,’—possibly a reference to Moline, the largest city in Rock Island County, Illinois. 
On the following page, Bragg comments on another recording of the song by Lead Belly:
The definitive version of ‘Rock Island Line’ is recorded in the summer of 1947 in New York City. Again, Lead Belly mentions that the train is coming back from ‘Mule-een.’ 
Interestingly, in 1996 Smithsonian Folkways presented a transcription of this 1947 version of the monologue, prepared by archivist and producer Jeff Place.  The transcription, which was reprinted on page 62 of these liner notes, includes the following line:
And in that road the man gonna talk to the depot agent when he’s comin’ out of the cut with that Rock Island Line freight train coming back from Mullaine (sic) this a way.
To sum up, both Billy Bragg and Jeff Place think Lead Belly is saying an unfamiliar place name, but they don’t agree on what it is. What Bragg hears as “Mule-een.” Place renders as “Mullaine.” Neither of them has a satisfactory explanation of what “Mule-een” or “Mullaine” means, with Bragg speculating that it might be Moline, Illinois.
Bragg’s exploration of the Lead Belly monologues was for him a prelude to the discussion of Lonnie Donegan’s version of the song. When he gets to this discussion, Bragg writes:
Listening today, it’s easy to imagine that Donegan could have mistaken ‘Mule-een’ for ‘New Orleans,’ given that Lead Belly himself hailed from Louisiana.
In other words, Bragg believes that a mistake by Lonnie Donegan added the reference to New Orleans to the song, which would (if true) mean even more versions could be shown to derive from Donegan’s.
For example, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott first recorded “Rock Island Line” in 1957. On the recording, he mentions the depot agent throwing the switch, he mentions “the hole,” and he mentions the whistle, three elements of Lead Belly’s version which Lonnie Donegan eliminated. He does not mention the tollgate, which Donegan added. So it would seem Elliott’s version is entirely based on Lead Belly’s, and not at all on Donegan’s, except for one thing: he says the train is “out of New Orleans.”
So, we seem to have three choices: either Jack Elliott imported one and only one innovation of Lonnie Donegan’s into his song (“New Orleans”); or he coincidentally made exactly the same mistake as Donegan; or, just maybe, he and Donegan both had some good reason to believe Lead Belly meant to say “New Orleans.”
This brings us to the main question: just what was Lead Belly saying?
Textual Evidence: Two Monologues
Lead Belly’s recorded speech is often hard to understand. He sometimes spoke fast and indistinctly, and he didn’t always pronounce his words consistently. There are some recordings where he pronounces his own first name “Hugh-dee,” some where it’s “Who-dee” and a few where it’s “Hood-dee.” (Never to my knowledge did he rhyme it with “Buddy,” which is a common mistake made by others–but I might have missed one!)
Add to this that most of Lead Belly’s recordings are disc recordings between 65 and 85 years old, on which consonants like “s” can be lost in the general surface noise, and it’s easy to see why there might be disagreement as to what he is saying.
As Billy Bragg points out, there are two recordings of the “Rock Island Line” opening monologue in which Lead Belly says the place name that Jeff Place transcribes as “Mullaine” and Billy interprets as “Mule-een.” The first is the October 4, 1944 recording for Capitol Records in California, featuring Paul Mason Howard on zither, which you can hear here and also here. (Note Lead Belly’s unusually clear and precise elocution on this recording.) Listening to it myself, I hear the opening consonant as an N rather than an M. I also clearly hear an s on the end, so that Lead Belly clearly (to me) says “New ‘leans,” not “Mule-een.”
Other scholars have been consistent in interpreting Lead Belly’s words just as I do. Norm Cohen, one of our foremost experts on railroad songs, transcribes the relevant line in his book Long Steel Rail:
That Rock Island Line train out of New ‘leans comin’ back this-a-way.
Things are not as clear-cut with the second recording, which was made in New York City in 1947. You can hear that recording here and also here. On this recording, Lead Belly’s vowel makes the second syllable sound more like “lane” than “lean.” The Lomaxes transcribed this performance in the book The Leadbelly Legend, and interpret the monologue this way:
The man gonna talk to de depot agent
When he’s comin’ outta the cut with the Rock Island Line freight train
Comin’ back to de new lane this-a-way
The word “the” seems to present the Lomaxes some difficulties. Sometimes they write it as “the” and other times as “de,” with no apparent consistency. More than that, its placement before “new lane” seems to be a rationalization; to my ears, Lead Belly clearly says “from,” not “to the.” But without the definite article, the words would be “coming back from new lane,” which doesn’t make sense, so the Lomaxes seem to have added “to de.”
Newquist seems simply to have copied the Lomaxes’ transcription in his article, but without the affectation of spelling “the” as “de,” making the line also “to the new lane.”
Jeff Place, in the transcription cited above, agrees with me that there is no “the,” and that the word is “from,” not “to.” But once again the words “coming back from new lane” don’t make much sense. Place’s solution is to transcribe the unfamiliar words as “coming back from Mullaine.” But Place can’t explain what this means either.
Lead Belly’s biographer Kip Lornell, in transcribing this performance for his book Exploring American Folk Music, solves this issue by transcribing this line as “coming back from New ‘leans,” and I think it makes sense to do so. If we make the logical assumption that Lead Belly is talking about the same place in both performances where a place name is mentioned, we should use the version on the clearer recording, on which virtually all scholars agree that he says “New ‘leans.” This is especially true since the Lomaxes could not get the line to make sense as “new lane” without changing “from” into “to the,” and since Place’s solution, “from Mullaine,” doesn’t really make sense either.
Given all of this, the direct textual evidence appears to point toward the place name being “New ‘leans.”
Contextual Evidence 1: Two More Monologues
Although I haven’t found any more recordings on which Lead Belly says the pesky place name, there are two others where he indicates, in a general sense, where the dialogue between the depot agent and the engineer is taking place. Both support the idea that the train is coming back from New Orleans. The first is the 1942 recording for Folkways, which you can hear here and also here. On this recording, Lead Belly speaks fast and slurs his words a bit, but I think you’ll hear the monologue begin this way:
This here’s the Rock Island Line. Back where I come from, people be blowin’ the train whistle to talk to the depot agent….
Lead Belly was from Louisiana, so “back where I come from” would mean that the conversation by train whistle is happening in Louisiana.
An even clearer indication is given in the very last recording Lead Belly ever made of “Rock Island Line,” which was in Austin, Texas, on June 15, 1949. You can hear this recording here and also here. In this version of the monologue, Lead Belly finds himself singing for a Southern audience for the first time in a long while. As he changes the monologue to fit a Texas audience, he gets more precise about where such train-whistle conversations would take place:
I’m gonna do a work song, entitled “The Rock Island Line.” People here, round here, blow a train whistle, and down in Louisiana. But people up in…in the northern country, they don’t blow no train whistle like they do down here. That man can go to that engine and tell you what he’s got on his train. When the depot agent throws the switchboard over the track, he means the train must go in the hole. But the depot agent don’t know what’s on the train. The engineer now going to start it talking to him, on the Rock Island Line, and this is what he’s going to say: “I’ve got cows….”
This seems to be a pretty clear indication that such a train whistle conversation would happen in Texas or Louisiana, but not in “the northern country,” which is damaging to Billy Bragg’s idea that “Mule-een” might a reference to Moline, Illinois. And, of course, Lead Belly specifically chooses to mention Louisiana, suggesting that the little drama of the depot agent and the engineer was occurring there.
Thus, in two different versions of the monologue, Lead Belly strongly suggests that the drama unfolds in Louisiana, making New Orleans a logical interpretation of the place name “New ‘leans.”
Contextual Evidence 2: “New ‘leans”
Nowadays, it’s become received wisdom that the correct native pronunciation of “New Orleans” is something akin to “N’awlins.” But dialectologists will tell you that this is debatable even today, and it certainly wasn’t universally pronounced “N’awlins” in the past. In Alan Lomax’s 1938 recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, for example, the great jazz pianist tells Lomax that his ancestors have been in New Orleans since “long before the Louisiana Purchase,” calling the city “NEW uh-LEANS.” When Jelly Roll spoke, sometimes the first syllable of “Orleans” was so quiet as to sound more like a short pause—much like Lead Belly’s “New ‘leans.” You can hear Jelly Roll say the word this way on this recording.
Trawling around for recordings of people mentioning New Orleans in the 30s and 40s probably wouldn’t shed that much more light on the question of how common it was to pronounce “New Orleans” this way. However, there’s written evidence of this pronunciation, in the form of people writing the city’s name as “New ‘leans” or “New Leans.” You can see examples of this spelling in a March, 1930 satire of Louisiana speech, a 1941 song title “New ‘Leans, I’m Coming,” a 1998 interview with Sylvia Olden Lee (who says “New ‘leans” in imitation of her mother’s New Orleans accent), a 2003 restaurant menu, and the title of a 2016 artwork. All of this indicates that “New ‘leans” has persisted as a way of pronouncing “New Orleans,” by native Louisianans and outsiders alike, from before Lead Belly learned the song until today.
A Reply to Johnny Cash
In one of his own spoken introductions to “Rock Island Line,” Johnny Cash can’t help joking about the geography of the song:
When I was a little bitty boy, I lived beside the Cotton Belt Railroad. It was a part of the Rock Island Line that the song said ran from Chicago to New Orleans. But the railroad said it runs from Chicago to Houston. 
While it’s clearly just good humor when Cash says it, it does suggest one of the objections I frequently hear to the idea that Lead Belly is saying “New Orleans”: the real Rock Island Line didn’t go to the Crescent City.
There are two reasons we shouldn’t worry about this objection. The first is that, unlike the song, the monologue was not created by railroad employees who would have known where the line terminated. It was never part of the oral tradition of the railroad. It’s a fictional story created by Lead Belly, who was not an expert on the Rock Island Line.
The second is that, even if Lead Belly knew the railroad perfectly, the objection doesn’t really apply to his monologue. It applies very well to Lonnie Donegan’s version of the monologue, which is the one Johnny Cash was joking about, but not so much to Lead Belly’s.
Now this here’s a story about the Rock Island Line. Now the Rock Island Line is a railroad line, and it runs down into New Orleans. And just outside of New Orleans there’s a…a big tollgate. And all the trains that go through the tollgate, why, they gotta pay the man some money.
So in Lonnie Donegan’s version, the Rock Island Line runs into New Orleans and operates a tollgate just outside the city. It’s clearly inaccurate in just the way Johnny Cash describes.
In Lead Belly’s version, by contrast, if we accept that he is saying New Orleans, he states that the train was “out of New Orleans comin’ back this-a-way” or “coming back from New Orleans this-a-way.” In other words, he never says the Rock Island Line goes into New Orleans, he just places a train that originates in New Orleans or is “coming back from” there on the Rock Island Line. This was a frequent occurrence: trains from New Orleans often switched onto the Rock Island Line.
Since Lead Belly begins by observing that a train “out of” or “coming back from” New Orleans is “coming back this-a-way,” whatever place he is evoking is not New Orleans itself, but some distance away from there. The train is coming from New Orleans, and approaching a spot where there’s a depot and an interchange.
We might even hazard a guess as to where the depot is located. The closest the Rock Island Line got to New Orleans was Eunice, Louisiana. At the train depot in Eunice, the Rock Island Line operated an interchange with the Missouri Pacific, which ran to and from New Orleans. As a train coming “back from New Orleans” arrived at the Eunice depot, an operator could switch the train onto the proper track, and it could continue on the Rock Island Line.
Because of this, Lead Belly’s monologue can be understood to occur at Eunice. In that case, it refers to a train switching onto the Rock Island Line, having come from New Orleans on the Missouri Pacific. The action occurs in Louisiana, back where Lead Belly came from, and so accounts for all the evidence, matching the 1942 and 1949 monologues as well as the ones from 1944 and 1947.
Setting the song in Eunice might even explain why the overjoyed engineer begins singing the praises of the Rock Island Line as soon as he gets through the interchange. Instead of languishing in the hole, he finds himself home free and picking up speed, having just switched tracks onto the great Rock Island Line, which was, after all, a mighty good road. Surely, that’s something to sing about.
For all the reasons we’ve explored, the scholarly consensus is and always has been that Lead Belly placed his story in Louisiana, and that “New Orleans,” pronounced as “New ‘leans,” is the place name he says in the two monologues from 1944 and 1947. As we’ve seen, Lead Belly biographer Kip Lornell, historian David Newquist, folksong scholar Norm Cohen, and popular culture scholar Jeremy Price, among others, agree on this point. Listening to the monologues, especially the one from 1944, I agree as well. In fact, once we’ve looked through all this evidence, perhaps the most striking fact is this: only Billy Bragg has expressed the opinion that Lead Belly was saying “Mule-een,” and only Jeff Place has suggested “Mullaine.”
Perhaps the most diligent and authoritative scholar of “Rock Island Line” is Stephen Wade, who discovered the song’s origin as a “booster” anthem written by employees of the railroad. In his book The Beautiful Music All Around Us, Wade doesn’t transcribe the monologue itself, but he refers to it in a way that makes clear his position on what Lead Belly is saying:
Leadbelly went on to record the song at least five more times, shaping it as a solo, eventually creating a musical drama of a percussive freight train express bound for New Orleans. 
This means that performers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who say the train in “Rock Island Line” is coming from New Orleans, are not necessarily influenced by Lonnie Donegan. Elliott seems to have adapted his 1957 version directly from Lead Belly’s, including the phrase “out of New Orleans.”
It also means Billy Bragg was mistaken that Lonnie Donegan misheard Lead Belly’s word “Mule-een.”
It turns out Lonnie Donegan was right: Lead Belly was saying “New Orleans.”
1. Technically, the addition of a monologue with sung portions makes Lead Belly’s performance of “Rock Island Line” what folklorists call a cante fable, that is, a story in which songs or sung passages occur, usually as part of the dialogue. Although it’s not a well-known word, “cante fables” is a recognized genre term, with an entry in the American Folklore Society ethnographic thesaurus. Examples of the genre have been collected all over North America, including among both rural and urban African Americans. Here’s another cante fable from AFC collections, “Dr. Ridge’s Food,” sung and recited by John Stone and recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Columbia, Tuolumne County, California on August 5, 1939. (In the future it will be available at this link.)
2. On page 50 of The Beautiful Music All Around Us, Stephen Wade gives an account of George Kugler, an engineer on the Arkansas sections of the Rock Island Line, who invented a steam-whistle attachment that he could take from train to train, allowing him to play whole tunes on the whistle of whatever train he was driving. It suggests that there was at least some truth to Lead Belly’s claim that people could communicate relatively complex ideas by steam whistle.
3. Lonnie Donegan is often accused of copying Lead Belly’s introduction word for word. This only shows that his accusers don’t listen carefully. In fact he made quite a few changes to the monologue. He also changed the song itself–for example, removing direct mention of Jesus and replacing him with “hallelujah.”
4. Billy made a small error here: the recording was for Capitol Records, not Columbia.
5. Smithsonian Folkways has not considered the 1947 recording of “Rock Island Line” to be definitive, releasing instead the 1942 version on most of its reissues. However, it’s the most likely source of Lonnie Donegan’s version, and therefore definitive from a British perspective.
6. In the liner notes, Smithsonian Folkways prints the version of the monologue Lead Belly recorded in 1947 even though the recording on the disc is from 1942. This allows producer Jeff Place to present what he feels is the best version of the song as well as the best version of the monologue.
7. Cash used this introduction when he performed the song live. I transcribed this version from an episode of Kraft Music Hall which first aired on December 10, 1969.
8. Stephen Wade did mistake the direction of the train, however: in both of Lead Belly’s monologues mentioning New Orleans, the train is coming FROM there.