If You Want to Ride It, Got to Ride It Like You Find It

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”?

9 thoughts on “If You Want to Ride It, Got to Ride It Like You Find It

  1. I think that Wikipedia entry is ripe horseshit. In the 1840s, southern Iowans had just moved from Missouri and southern Illinois and Indiana; they followed the Skunk River into the interior of the territory from Keokuk and you’d have been hard pressed to tell southern Iowa from Arkansas, socially and culturally speaking. While there was not a robust slaveholding population in Iowa, both the American Fur Trade Company and many individual farmers used slaves (often as rentals from northern Missouri); moreover, the steamboat trade up and down the Mississippi River (where Rock Island was a stop) moved a lot of slaves as far north as the lead mines in Wisconsin and Fort Snelling, Minnesota. In the 1850s, Iowa had a referendum on allowing blacks more full citizenship rights that was resoundingly trounced, despite the efforts of the so-called “Iowa Band” of Congregational missionaries (who were from Andover Seminary, an anti-slavery outfit). There weren’t a whole lot of antislavery advocates in Iowa until the mid-1850s (drawn there by the whole Kansas-Nebraska hoo-hah) and me and some other historians argue that the Midwest remained pretty deeply racist despite the galvanizing effects of having a whole lot of guys killed fighting for the Union. Dubuque, for example, was the home to the American Protective Association (one of the most prominent of the nativist organizations of the 1890s…lots of anxiety about Irish Catholics, German Catholics who weren’t getting with the assimilation program…

    I am also pretty skeptical about UGRR claims that don’t show up until the 1970s. In Iowa, the more verifiable of UGRR claims with some contemporary evidence indicate that there was some ferrying of people up the Missouri River through eastern Nebraska and western Iowa and then roughly along the route of I-80, from Des Moines to Davenport (through the Iowa Band congregations). That’s east-west, not north-south for those of you playing along at home.

    So…that’s a long way of saying I’m not buying the whole “gee, we’ll just stay on board the train until Rock Island” thesis. Just doesn’t make any sense at all.

  2. Oh, good points. Plus, I’ve never heard of moving folks UP the Mississippi from the south. All of the reputed UGRR places I know if in Illinois are stops where people are crossing the river to head overland. Going upriver by river would have to be impossible unless you were on a steamboat, wouldn’t it? Going overland would have to be easier, even if you did follow some rivers for direction.

    I’m just saying that the direct route from New Orleans to Rock Island is up the Mississippi and I don’t think anyone is making that trek unless they have an easy way up river. Otherwise, wouldn’t it make more sense to head west?

  3. If one was running upriver with fair to middling information, one would have tried to hire on as a steamboat worker to St. Louis, ridden up the Ohio to the Falls at Louisville, and then try to run up to Indianapolis or Cincinnati or some other bigger city where one could get some money together for the long trip to Canada. Very chancy business. Running straight north upriver would have gotten a *little* easier in the 1850s, but there wasn’t even reliable steam service on the upper Mississippi before the late 1830s.

    Despite the insistence in certain circles that the UGRR boomed everywhere and resistance to slavery was high in the North and West, there just weren’t all that many white people willing to risk imprisonment and a $1000 fine for violating the fugitive slave laws. Keep in mind professors at Oberlin earned a whopping $600 per year in the 1850s…would you be willing to risk, say, a $100,000 fine to do what you intellectually knew was probably the moral thing?

  4. Yeah, I think white Northerners want to believe that slaves were pouring north and that our ancestors were all helping them flee. The past is so much less awesome than that. My parents took a paddle boat ride at Rock Island once and the dude there was saying that boat wrecks were extremely common on that part of the Mississippi, but that fatalities were very, very rare, because the river was so shallow most of the time that, if your boat wrecked, you just got out on the side of the boat that was no longer in the channel and usually you could just wade to shore.

    Having gotten stuck out in the middle of the river before, even with all the locks and dams, I can see how that might be true.

  5. True. Except in the case of boiler explosions…in which case, the casualty count was boggling.

  6. me and some other historians argue that the Midwest remained pretty deeply racist despite the galvanizing effects of having a whole lot of guys killed fighting for the Union.

    In the St. Louis area as kids, we were always given to understand that if it hadn’t been for the Germans pouring into Missouri during the 1850s and ’60s, Missouri would have been in the Confederacy. And goodness knows that they were the first sizeable immigrant group to the US to, uh, do all that nasty clinging to their old-country values and refusing to assimilate stuff. Let alone their free libraries.

    Once I started studying European history and came to understand just why there was such a huge ‘German’ migration just then, the reasons for their abolitionism and Union-worship became a whole lot clearer.

    I put “City of New Orleans” in a special class, along with “They’re Tearing Down the Grand Ole Opry.” That’s “songs that actually helped save something from destruction.”

  7. I just directed an independent study on the connections between the radical diaspora in the wake of the 1848 revolutions and the evolution of abolitionism in the US! My student will be thrilled beyond thrilled to know that someone else besides him thinks that this is a cool topic. It doesn’t get a whole lot of play among historians of abolition, but I think that with the increased attention to Atlantic intellectual history and the recent big conferences uniting European, African, and North American historians working on various aspects of the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition, this is probably going to change.

  8. It’s funny how you can know two things and never put them together. Because everyone knows* that the ‘Germans’ who came over were mostly socialists and other kinds of radicals, and all the historians of the US point them out as the first ‘unassimilable’ minority. And everyone knows that the revolutions of 1848 failed, and that this prompted a lot of people to get the hell out of Europe, and all the historians of 19th-century Europe know that the emigration of disillusioned radicals had an impact on the political situation there. But no one ever puts those facts together. It is a fascinating topic, and deserves some explicit connections to be drawn.

    *Maybe not everyone. But growing up in St. Louis and having family near all the old German buildings on the lower East Side of NYC can help you figure it out.

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