This year marks a historically momentous anniversary: It has been exactly sixty years since the phrase “rock and roll” entered into the popular lexicon.
Nineteen Fifty-Five was the year that:
- Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” reached #1 on the Billboard charts
- Chuck Berry debuted on Chess Records with the epochal “Maybelline”
- Bo Diddley’s signature syncopated rhythm hit the R&B charts
- Little Richard, Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins stormed the nation’s jukeboxes
- Elvis Presley left Sun Records for a then-unheard-of $35,000 buyout from RCA
The popular conception is that rock and roll was born in 1955.
But, of course, nothing is created in a vacuum. Before there could be Elvis, Little Richard, or Chuck Berry—before the Class of ’55—there is a whole and rich history.
No. That’s not accurate. There are a thousand rich histories, a thousand strands of American music, each with its own separate course of evolution, its own geographical idiosyncrasies, its own heroes and villains.
Rock and roll is the bastard child of every American form that came before it. Its explosion into popular consciousness in the mid-50s is prefigured by a half-century of raw, rebellious, provocative, antagonistic, and downright dirty songs—the kind that would make the genre so revolutionary.
To say that rock and roll was born in 1955 is a convenient way of packaging the impossible. Truly, rock and roll was born over decades, its primordial elements separately gathering in backwoods juke joints, Southern gospel churches, main street county fairs, smoky downtown jazz clubs, and muddy Delta hamlets.
Rock and roll wasn’t suddenly born. It came to be over time. So, from the outset, I admit that we’re not intending to name the first rock and roll song here. To attempt to do so would be an exercise in futility.
Roll and roll is a musical mutt, a point of musical confluence when the dividing lines between country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, and boogie ceased to be, and where the resulting amalgamation was something entirely novel.
But in order for that confluence to occur, each of those genres had to produce landmark recordings, songs of seminal importance whose crossover appeal, musical ingenuity, and sheer attitude do more than just hint at rock and roll.
To be sure, those songs tell us that rock and roll existed long before it had a name.
The Big Bang and the Singularity
If Elvis was the Big Bang, some might call Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” the singularity. This is the tune most frequently pegged as “the first rock and roll song.”
But identifying the first rock and roll song is pointless. This is mere trivia. By its lonesome, “Rocket 88” will tell you as much about the birth of rock and roll as a matchbook will tell you about the discovery of fire.
Like I said, identifying the first rock and roll song is pointless. But compiling candidates for the first rock and roll song—now that is another matter altogether. This is a discussion worthy of great consideration because, ultimately, when you gather together these musical moments from across a broad spectrum of pre-Elvis American music, a picture of rock and roll prior to its infancy becomes quite vivid. That is to say, when you hear it, you won’t be able to miss it. R&B shouters from the early ’50s, Country barn-burners from the mid ’40s, swinging floor-stompers from the late ’30s, even boogie woogie boozers from the late ’20s all capture the fire, the abandon, the sexual frankness, and the rollicking primacy that we think of as having magically burst from Elvis Presley’s loins on Ed Sullivan in 1956.
In particular, songs like Wild Bill Moore’s “We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll” (1947), Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rocking Tonight” (1947), and Goree Carter’s “Rock Awhile” (1949) should put that notion firmly to rest.
In a 1992 text by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes called “What Was the First Rock Song?,” the authors point out that “[m]any critics have likened the search for a ‘first’ rock ’n’ roll record to the medieval clerical debates on what day the world was created. First of all, what is rock ’n’ roll? Where does rhythm and blues or hillbilly boogie leave off and rock ’n’ roll pick up? When does an R&B vocal cross over into doo-wop, or are they both the same? On a larger scale , where does rock ’n’ roll begin to appear on the long rhythm road stretching from ragtime to the present?”
As the authors concede, we simply don’t know the answers to these questions. More succinctly: There are no answers. The only way to perceive these things is through the music itself.
Outside the neat mythology of rock and roll is a fascinating sonic quilt, a patchwork of sounds that defies any simple or single story of origin, and a tapestry that, taken together, tells a history of both American music and of America itself. Below, I’ll do my best to sum up that story in 50 songs.
There are no specific criteria for inclusion here. This is not a matter to be debated. Beyond the candidates here are, admittedly, many thousands of other songs that could have just as easily been included. While some here, like Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” or Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” are of obvious historical importance and must therefore be mentioned, there are other songs here that could be readily traded out for others of equal historical pertinence.
In some cases, the songs used here will be familiar, if not in their included incarnation, then in the countless variations that they would eventually spawn, like Sugar Boy Crawford’s “Jock-A-Mo” or Sunny Dae’s “Rock Around the Clock.” In other cases, recordings like Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” or Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” are included as musical template-setters. Others still, like Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept ‘A Rollin,’” are just here because I really like them.
What is important—and what ties together all the songs included here—is not just that they predate the emergence of “Rock and Roll,” but that they foretell its arrival. In doing so, the records dissected here also tell the story of American life during the Great Depression, hint at the sweeping socioeconomic changes surrounding World War II, anthologize America’s history of racial segregation, and in some cases predict the coming of the Civil Rights era. In addition to coding rock and roll’s DNA, this collection of songs gives us a glimpse into an America now long gone, for better and worse.
Race Records and the Dirty Deed
Before we jump into it, a quick history on the term “rock and roll,” just so we understand the power of semantics.
Plain and simple, “rock and roll” was parlance for sex among black singers, and persisted in many permutations from the 1920s onward. This usage was something of a conceptual far cry from the original usage of “rock and roll,” largely reserved for gospel settings and meant to imply that one was passionately moved by the spirit of the Lord. Though this impassioned movement would remain essential to the meaning, the source of movement had become a very different matter altogether.
It was actually during World War II that the terminology began to reach white audiences. With the onset of hostilities in the Pacific and the deployment of soldiers to Europe, America’s jazz orchestras and swing bands saw their ranks slashed, often by as much as two-thirds of their original rosters. This meant that combos of 11 to 14 musicians were suddenly reduced to sound-tracking nightlife with just five or six players.
By the 1940s, musicians were compensating by amplifying guitars, shouting their vocals, ratcheting up the drums, and wailing on their saxophones. Thus was born the R&B (Rhythm & Blues) combo. Their sound typifies the jumping, swinging, rollicking excitement that we think of as early rock and roll. At the time though, these recordings were called “Race Records,” the implication being that black music was inherently its own genre and, as such, was segregated to its own Race Records Billboard chart.
As Race Records grew increasingly popular with black and white audiences alike, early radio pioneers led a charge toward desegregation, both in their programming and in the dance parties they sponsored. Notable among them was Alan Freed, who, by 1954, “was referring to his nightly ‘Moon Dog House Party’ as ‘a rock and roll session with rhythm and blues records.’”
By January of the next year, Freed had dubbed his first superstar concert lineup the “Rock and Roll Jubilee Ball.” In spite of what the famously egomaniacal Freed might have told you, he did not invent the genre. He was merely among the best and most perceptive at co-opting the hepcat lingo of R&B culture and using it to brand the gathering cultural phenomenon. Regardless, this was the start of rock and roll’s subsequent half-century of cultural dominance.
The songs included in the narrative hereafter tell the story of that which came before this dominance, that which made it possible, and that which suggests that the spirit of rock and roll is far older than the genre itself. A companion Spotify playlist is included at the end of this account for your listening enjoyment. Though you may be tempted to jump around, reading in sequence will help to reveal a rich, chronological, and deeply interconnected series of concurrent histories.
50 Firsts of Rock and Roll
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1. “My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll”
(Trixie Smith, 1922)
By most accounts, Atlanta native Trixie Smith uttered the first lyrical reference to “rock” and “roll” in a secular recording. And there’s little question that she didn’t mean it in a church-going way.
Born in 1895, Smith relocated to New York in 1915 and joined the vaudeville circuit. After winning a blues contest at the Manhattan Casino, Smith earned a recording contract with Black Swan. Her cabaret training translated into this bawdy 1922 recording.
Sonically speaking, Trixie’s performance is not dramatically different from the bevy of recordings from this era that effectively encapsulated vaudeville’s droopy and titillating quirkiness. It is even evocative of more famous songs like the traditional “St. James Infirmary Blues” and Cab Calloway’s later smash hit, “Minnie the Moocher” (1931).
What distinguishes Smith’s song for our purposes is the refrain, which says:
My man rocks me, with one steady roll
There’s no slippin’ when he wants take hold
I looked at the clock, and the clock struck one
I said now, Daddy, ain’t we got fun
Oh, he was rockin’ me, with one steady roll.
In its time, Smith’s recording was more than just a footnote. By invoking in song the common vernacular usage of rock and roll as euphemism for sex, Trixie Smith (and the song’s author, J. Berni Barbour) planted the seed for its eventual proliferation in popular music.
Smith continued to record and perform into the 1930s, making the transition from stage to screen, and working closely with legendary clarinetist Sidney Bechet toward the end of the decade.
In spite of her role in its earliest stages of evolution, Trixie Smith would not live to see the genre that she helped to coin. She died in 1943 at the age of 48.
2. “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”
(Pinetop Smith, 1928)
Alabama-born Clarence Smith was better known as Pinetop, a nickname earned by way of his childhood propensity for tree-climbing. A frenetic ragtime style piano pounder, Pinetop waxed the definitive boogie woogie recording, placing his genre on the map before promptly shuffling off this mortal coil.
Born in 1904, Pinetop ventured north of the Mason-Dixon line in 1920, ultimately landing in Pittsburgh and joining a touring vaudeville company. His travels even saw the young singer and pianist backing the influential and imposing barrelhouse blues belter, Ma Rainey.
Just two days before New Year’s Eve, Smith recorded “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” a boisterous ivory-banger that placed its titular genre on the map. Indeed, the breathless pace and Pinetop’s own gruff vocal exhortations embody a reckless juke-joint spirit as abandoned and danceable as any recording three decades thence. In fact, the tune’s authorship is often incorrectly attributed to Pinetop Perkins, a Delta contemporary who ultimately re-recorded a hit version of the song in the 1950s.
Pinetop Smith’s crackling performance would also forge the lyrical and sonic palette from which future staples like Ray Charles’s “Mess Around” (1957) and “What’d I Say?” (1959) would draw. Co-opted for recordings by popsters Tommy Dorsey and Bing Crosby, it was redubbed “Boogie Woogie” and in that form would far outsell the original in the post-war era.
As for Pinetop Smith, he found himself on the wrong end of a gun during a dance hall brawl in Chicago, dying at age 24, just one day shy of his next recording session.
3. “It’s Tight Like That”
(Tampa Red & Georgia Tom, 1928)
Thomas Dorsey–not to be confused with the above-mentioned swing giant Tommy–is often referred to as the father of gospel music. The guitarist was recognized as among the first to incorporate the hymnal spirituals of black Southern gospel churches with the cadences of rhythm and blues. Of course, you wouldn’t know he was a man of God from his earliest recordings.
Before becoming the musical director for the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago (a post he would hold from 1932 to the late ’70s), before he became a catalyzing spiritual influence on the great Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and before he wrote the definitive 1937 gospel composition, “Peace in the Valley,” Dorsey was better known as Georgia Tom.
Born in 1899, Georgia Tom journeyed to Chicago in the 1920s, where he teamed with the likewise-transplanted Tampa Red (né Hudson Woodbridge). As a duo—and sometimes as a trio with Frankie “Half-pint” Jaxon—Tampa Red and Georgia Tom pioneered the blues subgenre called hokum.
Distinguished by its shuffling rustic rhythms and its humorous sexual double entendre, the hokum championed by the young Georgia Tom brought him into communion with the likes of Ma Rainey, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Memphis Minnie, but did little to hint at his divine musical reinvention soon thereafter.
“It’s Tight Like That” is a representative tune of its genre, a strumming novelty with country blues tuning and tawdry content. Hokum blues is an elemental genre in modern American music, a farcical style of sex-punning that actually predates jazz, ragtime, and even most forms of country music. Some choice representative titles include Bo Carter’s “Please Warm My Weiner” (1930) and Lil Johnson’s “Press My Button (Ring My Bell)” (1935).
Descended from the blackface minstrel and medicine shows that toured from town to town as early as the 1830s, hokum might well have reached its peak importance in the considerable body of work produced by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom.
A genre often dismissed in high culture during its time for its connection to deeply racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, and downright vulgar portrayals of American life, hokum (and minstrelsy in general) occupies an important part in our musical evolution. The endless cycle of racial appropriation that has defined popular music from Elvis Presley to Pat Boone to Vanilla Ice can trace its musical, theatrical, and sociological roots to the minstrel show’s interplay of white business principles, black cultural tropes, and musical ingenuity from both sides of the color barrier.
Selling no fewer than seven million copies, “It’s Tight Like That” amply demonstrated the appeal of black music and culture to white record buyers. Moreover, its emergence as a hit would give hokum a degree of survivability beyond vaudeville and the burlesque houses.
Georgia Tom and Tampa Red would split in the late ’30s, with the former going on to achieve towering status in gospel and the latter enjoying R&B chart success in the 1940s before descending into alcoholism and dying penniless at the age of 77. Georgia Tom, by contrast, lived to the ripe age of 93 and enjoyed adulation and enshrinement in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame—the first African American to receive the honor.
Every dirty double entendre to hit a record from Big Joe Turner to Snoop Dogg owes a debt to hokum.
4. “Crazy About My Baby”
(Blind Roosevelt Graves, 1929)
Let’s deal with one matter first. Why are so many blues singers blind? Blind Lemon Jefferson. Blind Blake. Blind Boy Fuller. Blind Willie Johnson, Sonny Terry. I could go on . . .
The first and simplest explanation is that playing the blues was the occupation most accessible to post-slavery/pre-Civil Rights southern black men who lacked the ability to work in the fields.
Onward to Mr. Graves, who was born sightless in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1909. Partnering with his brother Uaroy, also half-blind, Roosevelt cut 15 sides of secular and spiritual music for Paramount in 1929. With country blues records suddenly proving commercially powerful, Paramount paired the Graves brothers with a crack team of studio musicians. The amalgam of guitar, tambourine, piano, and cornet imbues “Crazy About My Baby” with a touch of the boogie woogie.
Borrowing heavily from Jim Jackson’s template-setting “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues” (which would itself evolve into Wilbert Harrison’s standard-bearing “Kansas City”), “Crazy About My Baby” outfits Graves’s rural performance with a contemporary arrangement. The result is a convergence of backwoods and downtown (albeit recorded in a makeshift studio in the Hotel Hattiesburg). In many ways, the relatively obscure Graves would be among the first—even if unconsciously so—to merge country and city, creating a hybrid that would one day help define rock and roll.
After recording a few more sides in the ’30s—increasingly prototypical rock and roll songs in their own right—the brothers departed music. Roosevelt died in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1962.
5. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”
(Duke Ellington, 1931)
It doesn’t get much more prophetic than this. Swing is not rock and roll, to be sure, but it is an absolutely essential chapter in the genre’s pre-evolution. The great Duke Ellington saw it coming—so says a tune that is not just important for its commercial enormity, but for its philosophical underpinning. Its repeated declaration is a phrase attributed to Ellington’s trumpeter Bubber Miley, then dying of tuberculosis.
Written in collaboration with Irving Mills, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” suggested that much of the jazz ensemble music which came before it was quickly going out of style. The Washington, D.C.–born Ellington (1899) had already made his reputation at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club by the time of this 1931 recording. But with “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” Ellington predicted and blueprinted the next big thing.
This was hardly his intention, according to most accounts. Ellington meant only to emphasize the importance of rhythm in the music of his Harlem Renaissance. The word “swing” had not yet been incorporated into the popular lexicon of jazz. This was the moment that would change this.
Moreover, its insistence that rhythm is the very thing that makes the music is a premise that would gain increasing importance in the drum-heavy swing boom a few years on. It would also mark an encompassing departure in American popular music, the beginning of the movement away from classical European musical convention and into something more African in origin. Though Ellington often balked at over-analysis of his own foresight, this composition would clearly become both a recording of consequence and a statement of purpose, not just for the swing movement that would immediately follow, but for the rocking and rolling that descended therefrom.
It should go without saying that when Duke Ellington died at the age of 75, he was largely regarded as one of America’s greatest musical treasures.
6. “Tiger Rag”
(Washboard Rhythm Kings, 1932)
Damn, this track is nasty. If part of rock and roll’s appeal is its dangerous attitude and inchoate wildness (and I like to think that it is), this 1932 recording has pretty much everything you’re looking for. Based on its title, we know that this tune descended from the Scott Joplin–pioneered ragtime genre. And by the band’s name and the arrangement here, we can also identify the Washboard Rhythm Kings as the kind of jug band that was omnipresent in pre-war blues.
This is where the predictability ends, however. Though they sound like a jug band, the Rhythm Kings were actually skilled jazz musicians who recorded for Victor and Vocalian in a heyday that persisted across the first five years of the Great Depression. It’s hard to say exactly where these guys came from since they were at one time known as the Georgia Washboard Stompers and, at another time, the Alabama Washboard Stompers. In any event, it was their performance on the Dixieland standard “Tiger Rag” that produced this immortal recording.
From the skiffling washboard syncopation to the frenetic horn breaks to the shouting vocals to the background hooting, “Tiger Rag” sounds like a party you wish you were at. The musicians here play with spectacular looseness, undermining any assumptions you might have about the formality of ensemble playing during the Depression. Straight up, these guys get down; the horns stepping all over each other, blurting out missed notes; the frontline vocals scatting furiously, the background bleeding with riotous encouragement; percussion driving forward like a locomotive and barrelhouse piano making a late solo entry. This was music that rocked, and fairly hard at that.
In structure, attitude, intensity, and flat-out wildness, the Washboard Rhythm King’s “Tiger Rag” is everything you’d expect from a prototypical rock and roll record.
7. “Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)”
(Austin Coleman, with Joe Washington Brown, 1934)
This recording is dated to 1934, but in reality it sounds like something much older. And realistically speaking, that’s exactly what it is.
Many of the forms that we’ve discussed so far—blues, gospel, boogie woogie—share common ancestry in the American slave trade. With the mass arrival of African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, so too arrived a rich and varied musical tradition. Among the features which most differentiated it from the traditions of Western classical music were its emphasis on rhythm over structure, on passion over formality, on unbridled vocal exchange over carefully orchestrated choral arrangements.
Many of these features crossed the Atlantic and became what we refer to in retrospect as slave spirituals. A particular tradition called the “ring shout” is endemic to the transplanted West African slaves who labored in the West Indies and the American South. During time away from the fields, slave communities would steal into the woods, gather in circles, and perform these sacred, ecstatic, and highly musical rituals, typically for many hours.
These traditions persisted even as the primary religious medium for most American slaves became Christianity. The content of spirituals turned toward the Bible and the context became the church. Chanting also remained an important and therapeutic part of life for cotton sharecroppers, chain-gang inmates, and other post-emancipation laborers. But there are few recordings that capture the frenzied and otherworldly intensity of the ring shout like this 1934 recording from Austin Coleman, accompanied by Joe Washington Brown.
Part of a collection procured by crucial musicologists and field recorders John and Alan Lomax (father and son), this recording is a window into the tradition in as pure a form as is perhaps available to our ears. Indeed, the recording itself not only closely mirrors the likely musical presentation of the form in the days of slavery, but its furious rhythmic pace and insistent chanting tell of its African origins.
Take away its anthropological implications, and this recording, which is attributed to two otherwise unknown musicians, is one of the rawest, most raucous, and most unhinged musical performances this side of the Sex Pistols, let alone early rock and roll. Moreover, its embodiment of the call-and-response traditions of the African ring shout prefigure the very same in the Southern gospel tradition and, thereafter, rock and roll floor-shakers like the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (1959) and Ray Charles “What’d I Say” (1959).
8. “Baby Please Don’t Go”
(Big Joe Williams, 1935)
The number of Delta blues songs that could have just as easily filled this slot is countless. Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (1936) and Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” (1940) immediately come to mind. But “Baby Please Don’t Go” earns inclusion here because the themes and lyrical tropes upon which it draws are effectively representative of its genre and because the composition itself, once unleashed, never left the vocabulary of popular music.
Big Joe Williams was born in Crawford, Mississippi, in 1903 and earned his way playing the unusual nine-string guitar for the Rabbit Foot Minstrels touring show, and thereafter as a member of the Birmingham Jug Band. He signed with Bluebird Records in 1935 and recorded “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
The song’s narrator pleads with his love, begging her to wait for him while he serves out his time on a prison farm. Its lyrical roots are said to extend directly from slave-era oral tradition. And because it was a massive hit for Big Joe, many of these same lyrical conceits became essential to popular blues songwriting thereafter.
As Big Joe Williams emerged to greater fame, he re-recorded the song in the later ’30s and ’40s, bringing an increasingly contemporary and metropolitan touch to the dusty Delta relic. By the early ’50s, Muddy Waters and company added Chicago flair and by the late ’50s, B.B. King electrified it.
In 1964, it crossed the Atlantic and earned a young Van Morrison and his Belfast Invasion band, Them, their first hit. Over the ensuing decades, it has remained an absolute requirement for those studying the blues songbook—a fact evidenced by its appearance on recordings by everybody from rockers like Tom Petty and Aerosmith to zydeco king Clifton Chenier and country popster Vince Gill.
To be sure, “Baby Please Don’t Go” is not, in its first incarnation, rock and roll. Pure and simple, it is Delta blues. But if you follow this piece of music as it transforms over time, the shared bloodline between blues and rock becomes a vivid thing to behold.
9. “Shave ‘Em Dry”
(Lucille Bogan, 1935)
Soooo . . . do not listen to this at work . . . or around children . . . or in the company of your local clergy.
Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry” is among the most sexually explicit recordings you’ll ever hear. And maybe it’s just me, but something about this kind of language on a recording that’s older than your grandmother is a little bit shocking. Bogan’s recording is more vulgar and confrontational than Miley Cyrus could ever dare to be.
Born in Mississippi in 1897 and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Bogan got her start making vaudeville records for the Okeh label in the early ’20s. As the decade wore on, Bogan found that her most popular material was also her dirtiest.
Themes of drinking and sex permeated her music. “Shave ‘Em Dry” was of particular note for its lurid lyrical variations, which tended toward an extremely graphic nature as the performance hour got later. Indeed, the title itself means . . . how shall we put this . . . it means to grind the gears without greasing them first.
Though the original recording is generally attributed to the equally bawdy Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan recorded two versions in 1935 that capture the song’s true potential for ribald specificity. Such is to say that where hokum blues peddled in innuendo, Bogan’s vocal blues told it exactly as it was.
On the infamous alternate take included here, the explicitness of “Shave ‘Em Dry” is not even thinly veiled. Seriously, don’t listen to this song in mixed company. I can’t stress that enough.
After this 1935 recording, little would be heard from Lucille Bogan, who died at age 51 in 1948.
Her blues number is included here for its prescient lyrical boldness. For those who believe that hip hop—or rock ‘n roll before it—represents a vulgarization of American public decorum, give a listen to “Shave ‘Em Dry.”
10. “Rock Island Line”
(Lead Belly, 1937)
Like many of the traditionals that solidified into permanent recordings in the pre-war Delta, “Rock Island Line” is inspired by real life, and its origin is traceable to those who actually lived it. That is to say that the first known version of “Rock Island Line” was actually composed by a member of the Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet, whose members were all employed at the Little Rock, Arkansas, freight yard for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. Indeed, it doesn’t get much more authentic than that.
The earliest existing recording of the song comes from another recording by aforementioned folklorist John Lomax, who traveled to an Arkansas state prison in 1934 to commit chain-gang chanting to posterity. Lomax was accompanied to the prison by one Huddle Ledbetter, a 12-string guitarist better known as Lead Belly. The 1888-born Louisiana native had, himself, spent multiple stints in prison. In fact, on two separate occasions, the man convicted of homicide in a fight over a woman, earned pardons by gifting songs to sitting governors.
The second time, he did it with the help of Lomax. Subsequently, when the two heard “Rock Island Line,” they produced what is by all accounts the seminal modern version of this song. The humorous story of smugglers moving slot machines over the rails under the guise of transporting livestock has been recorded in every decade since, perhaps most importantly by British skiffle-godfather Lonnie Donegan (1954). It was this song that brought Donegan to the attention of young Britons everywhere, launching the early aspirations of the future Beatles, Kinks, and Stones.
In spite of his checkered past and a famously explosive temper, Lead Belly would enjoy considerable recognition during his lifetime, though never a great financial fortune. Through the next several decades, Lead Belly would be the subject of high-profile newsreels and magazine articles for his unusual path to freedom and fame, as well as an eventual fixture in folk circles, where he played alongside other luminaries like Josh White, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie.
Lead Belly passed on in 1949, at age 61, leaving behind a treasure trove of recordings that constitute one of the most generous historical canons available to modern ears.