Appalachia Music

Let The Midnight Special Shine On Me

Midnight Special
Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly
 was born in the late 1800’s and lived until 1949. He is considered an important figure in the early folk movement in the US. Whether he played a 12 string guitar-an accordion or simply made a musical rhythm by stomping his feet-everyone agrees he was an amazing performer.

While Goodnight Irene is touted as his most famous song-Midnight Special is my personal favorite. Some folks believe Lead Belly wrote it-while other’s believe he discovered it while serving time in a Texas prison. Either way-Lead Belly deserves the credit for bringing it to the masses.

The legend behind the song goes something like this: The Midnight Special was a train that ran beside the prison, so close, that the train’s light shone into the cells. If you were lucky enough to have the ‘ever loving light’ shine on you-it meant an early release was coming your way.

Over the years dozens of performers have recorded the Midnight Special-perhaps the most famous, other than Lead Belly, was Creedence Clearwater Revival. For this week’s Pickin’ & Grinnin’ In The Kitchen Spot we give it a try-see what you think.

Hope you enjoyed the history-and the song. I thought Pap and Paul’s harmony was right on-and Ben’s playing during the breaks outstanding.


This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig in September of 2009.

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  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    November 19, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    I’ve heard the story about the train near the prison too. Good songs, so was Goodnight Irene – which our Mother said was where she got the middle name for her third daughter, our Sister Nancy Irene.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 14, 2013 at 12:29 am

    I meant to tell you that your arm and thumb did a fantastic job playing that bass. Do you ever sing-a-long? Wish we could see you more in the videos…
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I did take me a nap this afternoon, that is why I am up so late tonight. My hours are messed up since I got older…LOL

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    October 13, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Great job by you all. After reading
    the comment of Mel H., I remembered
    living in Atlanta in the late 60’s.
    I had a 4-track player installed in
    my car and listened to Johnny Rivers
    and other singers of that era…Ken

  • Reply
    October 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Mel-how could I have forgot Johnny Rivers?!! Thank you for the great comment : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia
    On Sunday,

  • Reply
    Sam Ensley
    October 13, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    Some years ago I was interested in this song and found out this. The train was used by people who visited the prisoners, including wives who were allowed conjugal visits.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    October 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I think this is my new favorite rendition of this song. Great job y’all!!

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    October 13, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Interesting history! Had no idea. Love CCR. Great job, guys!

  • Reply
    Phyllis S
    October 13, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Oh, thank you again for the fine
    music! Midnight Special is my favorite on the playlist and I
    choose it every single day.

  • Reply
    Mel H.
    October 13, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Johnny Rivers had the most famous version of “Midnight Special”–the 1970s late night Rock ‘n’ Roll show was named after, & used his version as its theme song.

  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    October 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Good job, guys!I bought my first Lead Belly recordings as a teenager, about 1965 or ’66. I bought my first 12 string in 1969, and when arthritis lets me play it, I still prefer a 12 string. Amongst my various recordings are a couple of songs where he played piano. He played in a very ragtime/honkytonk style. Look for “Eagle Rock Rag” on YouTube. I think my favorite is probably “Grasshoppers In My Pillow.” So much of his guitar playing really took advantage of the unique character of the 12 string, he still ranks as the best 12 string player ever in my book.

  • Reply
    Susie Swanson
    October 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Oh gosh, this is awesome. It’s always been one of my favorites. They do an awesome job.. Kudos!!

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    October 13, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Tipper: This performance is another ‘gooden’ by your fellows. I did not the ‘legacy’ of the MID NIGHT SPECIAL but I can imagine that being behind bars makes one ‘reach out’ to any sprig of hope!
    We had a wonderful MULTI-CLASS REUNION @ Hayesville last weekend. Then this weekend we buzzed over to Franklin and had lunch with a fellow who knows more history of the Civil War and my long ago relatives that I could ever know! Some folks are just amazing!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    October 13, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Bradley-yes one and the same LOL : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

  • Reply
    Gina S
    October 13, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Thanks for posting this, Tipper. I’ve heard and loved the song for years without ever knowing its origin. ‘Good Night, Irene” is another favorite of mine, but I never connected the two tunes. There’s a great old video on YouTube of Eric Clapton doing that one. Your guys did a super job on Midnight Special. I could tell that Blind Pig had fun with it. Maybe someday you can coax them to learn the other tune.

  • Reply
    October 13, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Possibly getting out of prison early when a train’s light was shone on you,, hmm,, well, I quess you had to have some “Ray” of hope..
    😉 Good job on the song by-the-way..

  • Reply
    October 13, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Ah man, “Yonder comes miss Rosie, how in the world did you know” Love that song! Pap, Paul and Ben did it justice Tipper. Question, I should know this but can’t remember, is Ben and The Guitar man the same?

  • Reply
    October 13, 2013 at 8:31 am

    My dad use to sing ‘Good-night Irene’ to my mom often as that was her name. I don’t think he knew all the words, but it was a good memory. I never knew the history of both songs here, but I remember hearing them as I grew up. Enjoyed the musical history lesson!

  • Reply
    October 13, 2013 at 8:05 am

    I always liked the song and as usual y’all did a great job of singin & pickin.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 13, 2013 at 8:00 am

    Yep, nice job on the song. I find the history of songs very interesting and am surprised how many songs we do not know for sure who wrote them.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 13, 2013 at 5:57 am

    Did Huddie Ledford really have lead in his belly? Or maybe the nickname was from his last name,
    Ledbetter…Sounds almost like one of those nicknames of the old gang eras…like “Baby Face”, “Stogie” and “Pop Caps”!lol
    He did good on “Good Night Irene”… I still think I could remember all the words if I really tried to sing it to myself.
    I also loved “Midnight Special”…I don’t know if I really associated the train and light with the word at the time I listened back in the day!
    I just loved the melody and rhythm…LOL
    As was expected a great shaking up song for morning by the gang!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…I do believe it is going to be a “purty”, “purty” day, says the “Cardinal”! Yep, we have an “early bird.”

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