Railroad Bill [Laws I13]

DESCRIPTION: Railroad Bill "never worked and never will"; he drinks, steals, and travels from town to town. His career finally ends when he is shot (and/or arrested). To the very end, all he does is "ride, ride, ride"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1911 (Odum, according to Cohen)
KEYWORDS: rambling robbery crime death train
March 7, 1897 - Death of Morris Slater, known as "Railroad Bill"
FOUND IN: US(SE) New Zealand
REFERENCES (17 citations):
Laws I13, "Railroad Bill"
Cohen-LSRail, pp. 122-131, "Railroad Bill" (2 texts plus many excerpts, 1 tune)
Sandburg, pp. 384-385, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune -- perhaps bowdlerized to eliminate Bill's death)
BrownIII 504, "A Thirty-Two Special on a Forty-Four Frame" (1 two-line fragment, with lyrics sometimes associated with this song)
BrownSchinhanV 504, "A Thirty-two Special on a Forty-Four Frame" (note only, stating that the tune cannot be found)
Rosenbaum, pp. 194-195, "Railroad Bill" (1 short text, 1 tune)
Scarborough-NegroFS, pp. 251-253, "It's Lookin' fer Railroad Bill" (2 texts plus some small pieces, which might be "Joseph Mica" rather than this)
Lomax-FSNA 304, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-ABFS, pp. 118-120, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Burt, pp. 201-202, "(Railroad Bill)" (1 text)
Colquhoun-NZ, p. 79, "Railway Bill" (1 text, 1 tune, short and with little plot except a statement that Bill doesn't work like other railroad employees, but it has this chorus) (p. 57 in the 1972 edition)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 329-330, "Railroad Bill" (1 text)
Shay-Barroom, pp. 48-49, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen/Seeger/Wood, p. 148, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Darling-NAS, pp. 240-242, "Railroad Bill" (2 texts)
Silber-FSWB, p. 99 "Railroad Bill" (1 text)
DT 662, (RRBILL*)

Roud #4181
Marilyn Bennett, "Railway Bill" (on NZSongYngCntry)
Vera Hall, "Railroad Bill" (AFS 1315 B2, 1323 A3; 1937)
Willie Hill, "Railroad Bill" (on FolkVisions2)
Frank Hutchison, "Railroad Bill" (OKeh 45425, 1930; rec. 1929)
John Jackson, "Railroad Bill" (on ClassAfrAm)
Otis Mote, "Railroad Bill" (OKeh 45389, 1929)
Riley Puckett, "Railroad Bill" (Columbia 15040-D, 1925; Silvertone 3258, 1926)
Roba Stanley, Bob Stanley & (?) Patterson, "Railroad Bill" (OKeh 40295, 1925; rec. 1924)
Hobart Smith, "Railroad Bill" (on LomaxCD1705) (Disc 6081, 1940s)

cf. "Right On, Desperado Bill" (character of Railroad Bill)
NOTES [143 words]: Burt reports that Morris Slater, known as "Railroad Bill," "terrorized" Florida and Alabama from 1894 to 1897, initially robbing freight trains, but later perhaps branching out; an Alabama deputy was killed during the saga, and Slater was blamed.
Slater was eventually surrounded and surprised in a grocery, "eating crackers and cheese"; he probably could have been taken, but the posse shot him instead.
Burt's version of the ballad specifically mentions the crackers and cheese, but Laws is rather cautious in reporting Burt's story, and I have to agree with him: I don't think we can prove Burt's Alabama version (published 1927) to be the original.
Cohen adds even more data, noting a number of the parts of "Railroad Bill" seem to precede Slater. Either there was another "Railroad Bill," or the song adapted a large number of other railroad bits. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
File: LI13

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2019 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.