Leadbelly: The Midnight Special
Coming off a lively week here last week, we now have one of the richest themes popular music has to offer. Prison is such a popular theme, I think, because it implies a yearning for freedom. Certainly, that is true of my first selection.
In choosing a version of The Midnight Special to present, I had almost 100 years of recordings to consider. Leadbelly is often credited with having written the song, but the earliest known recording is from 1923, before Leadbelly’s time. Leadbelly was the natural choice for me however for two reasons: his great performance was the first to popularize the song, and he was black. That is important, because this song is about an essential part of the black experience in America. When Leadbelly sings, “If you ever go to Houston/ You better act right…”, he goes on to describe behavior that only landed his narrator in jail because of the color of his skin. Today, a black teenager can be shot for reaching into his pocket for a bag of Skittles, so The Midnight Special is, sadly, still relevant. Credence Clearwater Revival did a brilliant cover of the song that made it a rock classic, but some of the resonance of the lyric could not help but be lost because the song could not have been about their experience.
The Midnight Special in the title is a train that passes by the prison where the narrator is living. It is an interesting symbol for freedom, since a train is, in a sense, a prisoner of its tracks, able to go only where they take it. Indeed, if a prisoner was somehow able to get to the tracks and jump a freight train in the night, the police would begin their search in the places the train goes, making the escapee easier to catch. But trains can also remind the listener of the Underground Railroad, so they are a powerful symbol of freedom. The writer of the song, however, probably wasn’t thinking that deeply. He just saw a light that belonged to something that had the power to take him away from his situation, even if only for a while.