I finished my guide to Illinois for Mack’s kids and put them together a kick-ass CD of songs that remind me of Illinois for them to listen to on the ride. I’ve got “Authority Song” and “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp, “Rock Island Line” by Leadbelly, “City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie, “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” by Duke Ellington, “Illinois Blues” by Skip James, “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta, Haynes, Jeremiah (I guess, I don’t know how you hippies made sense of that name), “Route 66” by the Rolling Stones, and “I Ride an Old Paint” by Carl Sandburg.
I was surprised to find that listening to “City of New Orleans” made me cry. I think it just reminds me of my grandfathers and how the railroad allowed a lot of the men in my family good livings to provide for their families and how that kind of career is passing away, if not gone.
I can remember when I was little, taking my Grandpa Bob to my music teacher and telling him, excitedly, how we’d learned to sing the “Rock Island Line.” He worked for the Rock Island, first in Chicago and then, for all my life, out in Rock Island. Once, we even got to get up in the engine.
He was a good grandpa, Grandpa Bob. He would take us to the park to play baseball or go sledding in the winter and he always seemed genuinely delighted with us. He was outdoorsy and had intended on being a park ranger. He even went to college before the war down in Mississippi to learn forestry.
Ah, well, I guess it doesn’t matter.
I was looking on wikipedia about “The Rock Island Line” and it says the following
While it is claimed that the song refers to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, the song is considerably older than the first recording, and from some of the lyrics it can be interpreted that the “railroad” referred-to is actually the Underground Railroad, a slave escape route.
While there were other points where underground railroad routes converged further south, these were not as safe as Rock Island, Illinois, since pro-slavery sympathies were higher further south, such as at the confluences of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri rivers at St. Louis.
By contrast, anti-slavery sentiment was higher in Rock Island, and freight and passengers headed North could continue on up the Mississippi River, or could continue north-east up the Rock River, or could travel east on the Rock Island railroad in early years. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the lyrics specifically mention that the railroad entered New Orleans, a point never served directly by the Rock Island Railroad, and that code words used on the Underground Railroad pervade the song’s lyrics.
Isn’t that cool? But it seems entirely plausible that the song was written about the actual Rock Island line. The Rock Island was, as early as 1905 attempting to buy track or right of way that would reach New Orleans from Little Rock. Before the Civil War, the Rock Island was a small railroad that ran from Illinois into Iowa.
I’m not a slaveholder, obviously, but it’s one thing to posit that songs like “Steal Away” or “Follow the Drinking Gourd” might have been secret Underground Railroad songs, but, if you have something called “the Underground Railroad” and you have your slaves singing about taking a railroad from New Orleans–a railroad that, at the time, doesn’t go to New Orleans, and is located in the free North–and the gist of the song is how the engineer claims to be carrying one thing but is really carrying another, it’s hard for me to believe that that’s not too close to obvious.
I mean, shoot, in that case, why not just come out and sing “I’m running away this evening. I’m running away up north. I’ll take what I can carry, but don’t look here for me no more”?