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