The Midnight Special

leadbelly

Leadbelly

Sugar Land is a booming town located in the grassy flatlands just west of Houston, Texas.  Those who don’t live there just speed along the freeway, past the city’s strip centers and restaurants on their way down the Gulf Coast.  In that respect, nothing much has changed in just about 100 years –  back in the 1920s one didn’t go to Sugar Land unless you had to.

Walter Boyd surely didn’t want to go there in 1918; he soon found that the sugar plantations and sugar refinery may have given Sugar Land its name, but the town was best known as the location of a Texas prison.   Boyd killed one of his relatives in a fight over a woman, and he was sentenced to 35 years in the penitentiary.  Because he was black, Boyd was sent to the segregated Harlem prison just west of the bigger Central Unit where the white prisoners were kept.  Jailers soon discovered that Walter Boyd wasn’t even the prisoner’s real name – it was actually Huddie Ledbetter.

Most of the inmates knew him as Leadbelly, likely a word play on his last name or a tough-guy nickname.  Leadbelly was also known as a musician; not only was he a great guitarist, he also played piano, accordion and other instruments.  Leadbelly would sing in his cell, at meal time with the other inmates and out working in the fields under the watchful eye of an armed boss-man.

harlem-prison-1

Old buildings at site of Harlem Farm prison near Sugar Land, Texas

One of the songs he sang was “Midnight Special,” a folk song passed around among the prisoners.  Inmates knew that the Midnight Special was a train, the Southern Pacific Golden Gate Limited, that ran just a few hundred yards from the prison.  Leadbelly would lay in his cot and hear the whistle of the train cut through the Texas night.   According to legend, the train’s headlight was a beam of hope; if it shone on you it was a sign you’d soon go free.

Leadbelly served seven years in Harlem prison and he developed a reputation as a great singer.  He performed for the guards and even Texas governor Pat Neff had seen him play a time or two.  Leadbelly wrote a letter to Neff requesting a pardon and in 1925 the governor signed Leadbelly’s pardon for good behavior.

harlem-prison-2

Railroad tracks with prison in far background

Even though Leadbelly would land in prison a few more times, he eventually met folklorist John Lomax who contracted him to cut records and perform on the radio throughout the 1930s and 1940s.  Leadbelly wrote or popularized a number of songs, including “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene.”  Leadbelly died in 1949 of ALS and his music is part of American history.  “The Midnight Special” is one of his most popular songs; as is often the case, Leadbelly is credited with writing the old folk song because the modern version has just enough of his touches.  In addition to being covered by many rock and roll artists, “Midnight Special” was the title theme song for the hit late-night variety show hosted by Wolfman Jack in the 1970s.

My house is just down the road from Sugar Land, only a few miles as the crow flies from the site of the old Harlem prison farm.  It’s still a prison, and the railroad track still runs between the highway and the fields where inmates grow their own food.  And on a warm summer night, if you haven’ t yet gone to bed, you can still hear the train whistle coming through and singing its lonesome tune: the Midnight Special. 

MP3: “Midnight Special” by Leadbelly w/the Golden Gate Quartet (1940)

MP3: “Rock Island Line” by Leadbelly w/the Golden Gate Quartet (1940)

MP3: “Goodnight Irene” by Leadbelly (1943)

MP3: “Midnight Special” by Johnny Rivers (1965)

MP3: “The Midnight Special” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

YouTube: “The Midnight Special” by Paul McCartney (1991)

10 Responses to “The Midnight Special”

  1. Uh, the opening comments about Sugar Land are not accurate, now anyway. 10 years ago it was true, but nowadays the city is vibrant, growing and with a highrise Marriot hotel, wine festival and other events, it is only dwarfed by Houston proper. Thought you guys would like the update….

    I live about 4 miles from the prison Leabelly was in, drive past it often and always think of The Midnight Special. Makes me kind of proud in a strange way.

  2. Oh and the photos of the prison farm look to be 20-30 years old.

  3. 30daysout Says:

    Thanks, David G. , maybe I was a little unfair to Sugar Land … When my wife and I moved to Richmond, Tex., in 1985 everything west of Texas highway 6 was farm and prison land. You are right – there is certainly a lot going on in Sugar Land.

    Denny at 30 Days Out

  4. 30daysout Says:

    And I shot those photos Sunday morning (1-11-09) as the sun was coming up.

    Denny at 30 Days Out

  5. and nice photos they are too Denny. I was in the prison once, to photograph, and once was enough. Never have I felt the threat of harm seep into my bones more quickly or deeply. I was in a unit for the ‘violent youthful offenders’, all the inmates were 17-25 years old. Walking WITH the Warden past sullen faces, I got my own ‘wolf whistle’ and I’m not that cute. Middle of the day, the inmates were just standing around, cells empty and open, mattresses out and draped over railings. I drove home at the speed limit.

  6. Part of the Jester Unit, as the prison is now called, has a hospital facility for the criminally insane and others. It houses characters like this:

    http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6202701.html

    Denny at 30 Days Out

  7. 5moreyears Says:

    My husband is currently incarcerated at the Jester III Unit, in the trusty camp. He is working in the unit for the criminally insane! I am looking for pictures of the facility. Do you have any others? Can you tell me which unit was this old ‘Harlem Prison Farm”? Your pictures are lovely, by the way.

  8. I have worked at the Jester Units since 1983. It has a lot of history that is not known. Jester 1 was built in 1932 and Jester II in 1933. Jester III in 1982, and Jester 4 in 1991. Jester 4 houses offenders from all over the state with mental problems and are not considered criminally insane.
    The picture of “the old buildings” is of the brick plant that operated until around 1979 and supplied the bricks that built the University in Huntsville and other State buildings. the convicts did not like working there because it was so hot and the loads were heavy.

  9. 30daysout Says:

    Thanks for that info, oldhand … I am sure lots of people who live out there don’t know the history on that land.

  10. Brazos River Says:

    This song was widely circulated throughout the south before Leadbelly ever came to Fort Bend County where he was imprisoned in a building at Imperial Farm that is no longer standing.

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