“Rock Island Line” and Questions of Authenticity

In search of music authentic to the African-American tradition–that is, music passed down from slavery and unsullied by white influence–folk music collectors of the early 20th century made recordings at prisons and penitentiaries where music like the work song was more likely to be alive. In 1934, John Lomax recorded a group of African-American prisoners at Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas singing a tune called “Rock Island Line.” You can listen to Lomax’s original 1934 recording below.

Figure 1

This recording contains evidence of the work song tradition in its call and response structure and the sound of shovels hitting the ground rhythmically.  However, the polished harmonies sound closer to the music produced by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which was based on slave music but was highly modified to fit the tastes of white audiences. Another threat to authenticity was the presence of Lomax, his recording equipment, and the cognizance of a future audience during the making of functional music. Consider this photograph of an inmate pausing briefly from work to be photographed in comparison with the following photograph of the Cummins State Farm inmates congregated to perform “Rock Island Line” for Lomax’s recording.

Figure 2

Figure 3

In the first photograph, the prison officer is amongst the inmates, and the inmates do not seem to be coordinating their work. In the second photograph, the prison officer stands apart from the group of prisoners–much like an overseer–while the prisoners swing their shovels in synchronization over a small patch of land. Are both of these representations of Arkansas prison life accurate or is the second photograph staged to look more “authentic” to the work song tradition?

In the same way, the musical categorization of “Rock Island Line” is complicated. Is it a work song as the second picture above seems to show? Is it a blues song like Lead Belly’s 1949 rendition would have us believe? Or is it an American Folk song as white artists of the 1950s, 60s, and beyond would portray? The only thing we can say conclusively is that Lomax’s recording and Lead Belly’s subsequent reworking and marketing of the song changed it into a song well known but of questionable authenticity in America’s musical history.


“Original 1934 John Lomax recording of ‘Rock Island Line’ by Kelly Pace and Prisoners,” Youtube video, posted by Jan Tak, September 10, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NTa7ps6sNU


“[African American convicts working at an outdoor location].” Photograph. Washington, D.C.: c1934-1950. From Library of Congress: Lomax Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660147/resource/ (accessed March 1, 2015)

“[African American convicts working with shovels, possibly the singers of “Rock Island Line” at Cummins State Farm, Gould, Arkansas, 1934].” Photograph. Washington, D.C.: c1934. From Library of Congress: Lomax Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsc.00422/ (accessed March 1, 2015)

“leadbelly rock island line,” Youtube video, posted by Northern soul, September 23, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iJEVOUqepo


“Lonnie Donegan – Rock Island Line (Live) 15/6/1961,” Youtube video, posted by Paul Griggs, December 29, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI4nRD-DRpk

One thought on ““Rock Island Line” and Questions of Authenticity

  1. Awesome, awesome job, H. You already know how much I appreciate your analysis of the photographs you found: this is exactly why we do primary source research. If you wanted to add an extra layer (or maybe compare more things to the opening scene in “O Brother Where Art Thou” for your final paper), here’s footage of prisoners singing work songs while chopping trees in Texas in 1966 (recorded by Pete Seeger and Bruce Jackson, whose article we read): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFSlw8LlIw0. I wouldn’t assume that this video is any more authentic than the photo you found, but it certainly shows that our ideas about work songs and our interest in “hunting” and “catching” singing prisoners in action didn’t change much between the 1930s and the 1960s. It’d be interesting to see if they’ve changed in the years since.

    Keep up the wonderful work!

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