The Paul McCartney Project

Midnight Special (Prisoner's Song)

Written by Traditional

Album This song officially appears on the Once Upon a Long Ago #2 12" Single.
Timeline This song has been officially released in 1987
Sessions This song has been recorded during the following sessions

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Song facts

From Wikipedia:

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 train Midnight 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.

The song is historically performed in the country-blues style from the viewpoint of the prisoner and has been covered by many artists.

History

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”:

Now, Mister McGinty is a good man,
But he’s run away now with a cowboy band.
Refrain

Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man,
But he’s manager now of a cowboy band.
Refrain

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?
I know by the apron and the dress she wears.

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.

Other versions

Folk/bluegrass musicians Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper had a top 5 country hit with the song in 1959 as “Big Midnight Special“.

Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Odetta, Les Paul, The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, The Beatles, Burl Ives, Big Joe Turner, Bobby Darin, Johnny Rivers, Cisco Houston, Mungo Jerry, Van Morrison, Little Richard, Buckwheat Zydeco, Otis Rush, The Spencer Davis Group, Paul Evans, Lonnie Donegan, Eric Clapton, Long John Baldry, The Kentucky Headhunters, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others, have recorded the song. Jody Miller arranged her own version and included it on her first album Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe in 1963.

Harry Belafonte’s 1962 version is notable for containing the first official recording of Bob Dylan, who played harmonica.

Paul McCartney has performed it numerous times (with The Beatles and solo). It was the closing song on his 1988 album Choba B CCCP and was performed on his 1991 appearance on MTV Unplugged, but was not included on the accompanying album. […]

From the Choba B CCCP liner notes:

Midnight Special is public domain and anyone personally rearranging the song has the legal right to claim a composer credit. The legendary blues artist, Leadbelly first claimed it sometime between 1918 and 1925 when serving time for murder in Harlem – an all-black Texas prison.

The prison, which no longer exists, was located near Sugarland just outside of Houston and the words in the song, “Let the Midnight Special shine its ever-lovin’ light on me,” refers to the prison myth that if the light of that train from Houston shone on an inmate he would be freed.

Paul’s easy-action version retain elements of its original blues roots by way of his nimble acoustic guitar pickin’.

Last updated on September 1, 2016

Lyrics

Well you wake up early in the morning
Hear the ding dong bell
You go a-walkin' to the table
See the same damn thing
Knife and fork out on the table
Piece of paper round my hand
Nothing I can do about it
I'll get in trouble with the man

Let the midnight special
Shine her light on me
Let the midnight special
Shine his ever-loving light on me

If you ever go to Houston
You better act right
You better not gamble
And you better not fight
Because the Sheriff will arrest you
And he'll carry you down
And if they go and find you guilty
Penitentiary bound.

Let the midnight special
Shine her light on me
Let the midnight special
Shine his ever-loving light on me.

Well you wake up early in the morning
Hear the ding dong bell
You go a-walkin' to the table
See the same damn thing
Knife and fork out on the table
Piece of paper in my hand
Nothing I can do about it
I'll get in trouble with the man.

Let the midnight special
Shine her light on me
Let the midnight special
Shine his ever-loving light on me.

Well if I ever go to Houston
You better act right
You better not gamble
And you better not fight
Because the Sheriff will arrest you
And they'll carry you down
And if they find you guilty
Well you'll be sugar-line bound.

Let the midnight special
Shine his light on me
Let the midnight special
Shine his ever-loving light on me.

Officially appears on


Once Upon a Long Ago #2

12" Single • Released in 1987

4:01 • Studio versionA

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Producer, Vocal
Mick Green:
Guitar
Chris Whitten:
Drums
Mick Gallagher:
Piano
Peter Henderson:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Jul 20, 1987
Studio:
Hog Hill Studio, Rye, UK

Session Mixing:
Jul 22, 1987
Studio:
Hog Hill Studio, Rye, UK


CHOBA Á CCCP

Official album • Released in 1991

3:59 • Studio versionA

Paul McCartney:
Bass, Producer, Vocal
Mick Green:
Guitar
Chris Whitten:
Drums
Mick Gallagher:
Piano
Peter Henderson:
Engineer

Session Recording:
Jul 20, 1987
Studio:
Hog Hill Studio, Rye, UK

Session Mixing:
Jul 22, 1987
Studio:
Hog Hill Studio, Rye, UK


Off the Ground - The Complete Works

Official album • Released in 1993

4:55 • Live

Concert From "MTV Unplugged" in Wembley, United Kingdom on Jan 25, 1991

Bootlegs


MTV Unplugged Rehearsals

Unofficial album

4:02 • Live


Celebration In Colorado

Unofficial live

3:43 • Soundcheck

Concert From the concert in Denver, USA on Nov 01, 2005


Pull the Plug and Go Mad!

Unofficial live

5:18 • Live


Unplugged - The Rehearsals

Unofficial live

4:00 • Live


Dome In Rehearsal

Unofficial live

4:19 • Soundcheck

Concert From the concert in Fukuoka, Japan on Nov 18, 1993


Videos

Soundcheck • Jun 14, 2016 in Berlin

Live performances

“Midnight Special (Prisoner's Song)” has been played in 8 concerts and 90 soundchecks.

Latest concerts where “Midnight Special (Prisoner's Song)” has been played


Paul McCartney in Casual Conversation from LIPA

Jul 25, 2018 • United Kingdom • Liverpool • Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts



iTunes Festival

Jul 05, 2007 • United Kingdom • London • Institute for Contemporary Arts


Houston • Toyota Center

Nov 19, 2005 • Part of The US Tour




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