"Midnight Special" is a traditional folk song thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South. The title comes from the refrain, which refers to the passenger trainMidnight Special and its "ever-loving light" (sometimes "ever-living light").
Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me. (Traditional)
The song is historically performed in the country-blues style from the viewpoint of the prisoner and has been covered by many artists.
Lyrics appearing in the song were first recorded in print by Howard Odum in 1905.
Get up in the mornin' when ding dong rings,
Look at table — see the same damn thing.
The first printed reference to the song itself was in a 1923 issue of Adventure magazine, a three-times-a-month pulp magazine published by the Ridgway Company. In 1927 Carl Sandburg published two different versions of "Midnight Special" in his The American Songbag, the first published versions.
The song was first commercially recorded on the OKeh label in 1926 as "Pistol Pete's Midnight Special" by Dave "Pistol Pete" Cutrell (a member of McGinty's Oklahoma Cow Boy Band). Cutrell follows the traditional song except for semi-comedic stanzas about McGinty and Gray and "a cowboy band".
In March 1929, the band, now Otto Gray and the Oklahoma Cowboys, recorded the song again, this time with the traditional title using only the traditional lyrics.
Sam Collins recorded the song commercially in 1927 under the title "The Midnight Special Blues" for Gennett Records. His version also follows the traditional style. His is the first to name the woman in the story, Little Nora, and he refers to the Midnight Special's "ever-living" light.
Yonder come a Little Nora. How in the world do you know?
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. However, Ledbetter, for his Angola session, appears to have inserted several stanzas relating to a 1923 Houston jailbreak into the traditional song.Ledbetter recorded at least three versions of the song, one with the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel group (recorded for RCA at Victor Studio #2, New York City, June 15, 1940).
John and Alan Lomax, in their book, Best Loved American Folk Songs, told a credible story identifying the Midnight Special as a train from Houston shining its light into a cell in the Sugar Land Prison. They also describe Ledbetter's version as "the Negro jailbird's ballad to match Hard Times Poor Boy. Like so many American folk songs, its hero is not a man but a train." The light of the train is seen as the light of salvation, the train which could take them away from the prison walls. It is highly reminiscent of the imagery of such gospel songs as Let the Light from your Lighthouse Shine on Me.Carl Sandburg had a different view. He believed the subject of the song would rather be run over by a train than spend more time in jail.
The song, as popularized by Ledbetter, has many parallel lines to other prison songs. It is essentially the same song as "De Funiac Blues," sung and played by Burruss Johnson and recorded by John Lomax at the Raiford State Penitentiary in Florida on 2 June 1939. Many of the lines appear in prison work songs such as "Jumpin Judy," "Ain't That Berta," "Oh Berta" and "Yon' Comes de Sargent." These songs, including Ledbetter's "Midnight Special." are composite. They mix standard prison song verses indiscriminately. Many of these component pieces have become canonized in the blues idiom and appear in mutated forms regularly in blues lyrics.
Although later versions place the locale of the song near Houston, early versions such as "Walk Right In Belmont" (Wilmer Watts; Frank Wilson, 1927) and "North Carolina Blues" (Roy Martin, 1930) — both essentially the same song as "Midnight Special" — place it in North Carolina. Most of the early versions, however, have no particular location. Only one recording, collected by the Lomaxes at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, actually identifies the railroad operating the Midnight Special — the Illinois Central which had a route through Mississippi.
ABBA recorded the song in 1975 as a part of a folk medley, along with "Pick a Bale of Cotton" and "On Top of Old Smokey". It was the B-side to their 1978 single Summer Night City. The medley represents the group's only recording of material not written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus after their breakthrough with "Ring Ring" in 1973.
Matlock (TV series), episode "The Blues Singer" (1989), Andy Griffith performs the song with members of "The Bluesmen," which included Brownie McGhee, Joe Seneca and Ray Templin in the closing scene.
Excerpts of the song are performed as a duet, and solo, by characters in the Australian soap Prisoner. The women of Wentworth prison join forces with the male prisoners at Woodridge with the intention of putting on a concert to raise funds for various charitable causes. The characters Lou Reynolds (Kevin Summers) and Margo Gaffney (Jane Clifton) are seen rehearsing the song in several episodes.