From the Record Shelves #210

The Midnight Special

LP RCA Victor LPM 505

This was for me a very important album since it led to the fact that I really got into playing and singing several of these songs. I was in a duet, playing guitar, together with my banjo-playing friend in the 60s. In a way, we were one step ahead of the young people around us since their idols, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, probably also listened to this kind of music when they were not busy performing or running away from girls.

And who wouldn’t be affected by the iron voice and rhythm of Huddle Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly? He was born around 1885 and was discovered in a Louisiana prison in 1934.

He became bewitched by music at an early age, got a guitar from his father, and soon came to consider it “half of his life”. The comments on the LP describe him as a “walking anthology of unwritten folk music.” Blind Lemon Jefferson was his tutor and companion for a period and then, after that, he one day saw a man playing a twelve-string guitar in a traveling carnival; this instrument became his favorite one.

The chosen song is an unforgettable classic —a prison song and a cry for freedom. The Midnight Special was a train passing the prison, and the legend says that if its light shone through a prisoner’s window, he would be the next man to be set free.

After being discovered, Leadbelly was referred to in a press release as the man “who twice has sung and played his way out of prison.”