Over the holiday weekend, I found myself in the car for hours on end driving to Cleveland, Ohio for a family reunion. Thankfully, I like road trips and we had plenty of music to keep me and my family entertained for hours on end. One of the songs that came up during our trek, was “Midnight Special” by Van Morrison. This spurred an intriguing conversation about the song’s origins. Luck for us, Cleveland is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and we were able to solve our query there.
My dad thought that maybe the song dated back to the early 1960’s. I begged to differ. It sounded like something from the early roots of rock n’ roll- way before the 1950’s. I was thinking that the song was something like an old Americana folk tune. With a combination of information from the museum and the ever-useful Wikipedia, we discovered that (I was right-) the song actually dates back to the late 1920’s as a Southern train song.
So here is a timeline of the history of the song including some of the song’s more notable versions. Of course these are just a mere samplings of all the covers of this classic tune. But you can get a good idea of how the song has been transformed through history and genres…
Sam Collins recorded the song commercially in 1927 under the title “The Midnight Special Blues.” This is one of the first known recordings.
In 1934 Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter recorded a version of the song at Angola Prison for John and Alan Lomax, who mistakenly attributed it to him as the author.
Folk/Bluegrass musicians Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper had a top 5 country hit with the song in 1959 as “Big Midnight Special”.
Belafonte’s 1962 version is notable for containing the first official recording of Bob Dylan, who played harmonica. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
Little Richard’s mimicking of the train horn sound in this upbeat and energetic version is great. Also to note is the sax solo and the stellar back-up singers.
Probably the most popular cover of the song. Wikipedia tells us: “The Creedence Clearwater Revival version was featured heavily in the film Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
The song that started the whole discussion. Also- the bass line here is fantastic.