One of the darker aspects of American culture as it has evolved to this point has been our collective penchant to make folk heroes out of some really bad people, most notably high-profile criminals and sociopaths - Billy the Kid, John Wesley Harding, Wild Bill Hickock, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and more.
It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to quote oneself at the beginning of a new article, and though I have never been found wanting in that admirable quality, I have a better reason than mere self-promotion for doing so. Over the 190 posts on this blog, a number of thematic connections have emerged from among the articles, exactly what you would expect in a folk song site because those patterns are embedded in the aggregate of this country's traditional music. There are probably ten or more posts each on spirituals, sea chanteys, calypsos - and maybe half a dozen or so on bad guys. The passage above opens my discussion in 2009 of "The Ballad of Jesse James", and that post includes an extended reflection on Americans and our love of outlaws. There are also posts on "John Hardy", "Tom Dooley", and several others.
"Railroad Bill" is a fine candidate to join our American folk song cavalcade of infamy. Though a dwindling number of scholars maintain that the tune's namesake is entirely fictitious, you'll never get a decent meal in south Alabama or northwest Florida if you say so out loud because of the actual documentary evidence (including the photo above of Bill and Constable Leonard McGowan, who shot him) that established his very real identity. After Mr. Bill robbed several trains and shot and killed two sheriffs in separate pursuits, warrants were issued for him under the name of Morris Slater, a convict who had run off from a work camp in Bluff Springs, Florida. Slater evaded capture for more than a year after the initial murders, often with an almost unbelievable ability to escape when surrounded, making him a kind of folk hero to the region's African-Americans, suffering at the time under the Jim Crow segregation laws. Slater was reputed to be a "hoodoo man," possessed of supernatural powers that allowed him to disappear at will and thus evade the minions of justice - until, that is, McGowan tracked Slater down and found him in Tidmore and Ward's General Store in Atmore, Alabama on March 7, 1896.
How Slater came to be dead in that store is still debated, with McGowan maintaining that there was a shootout but some black witnesses asserting that McGowan simply walked into the store, shot Slater in the chest as Slater was lunching on cheese and crackers, and then peppered Slater's prone body with a half dozen more bullets. For about a week following, Slater's body was carted around various towns in both Alabama and Florida, as an object lesson, no doubt. Admission to see the body was 25 cents, and if you came up with four bits you could even have your photograph taken with the moldering remains. When this charming road show found its way to Brewton, AL, a number of residents claimed that the man's real name had been Bill McCoy, native son of Brewton - and if true, that might well explain why Slater himself claimed the moniker of "Railroad Bill."
No one is quite sure when the song came into being, but it's a safe bet that it had been around for a couple of decades at least before its first publication and recording in the middle and late 1920s. "Railroad Bill" appears then and into the 1930s in songbooks by the Lomaxes (who believed him to be a myth), Carl Sandburg, and Dorothy Scarborough, among others. The tune exists in both black and white country blues traditions, and both black and white artists recorded the song from about 1925 and on. The musical Bill is always a good shot and a slippery character, but in some versions he is the murderous criminal of real life while in others he is a badly misunderstood black man, driven to violence by white persecution.
"Guitar Frank" Hovington provides us with the best straight acoustic blues version I could find on YouTube - I'm guessing that the earliest versions of the tune sounded a lot like this:
Hovington recorded this two years before his 1982 death, and you can hear in his version an immediate similarity in both the chord structure and the walking bass to Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train," with which "Bill" is often performed as a medley. And if it's really old-time acoustic blues that you like, it's hard to top this version by John Cephas on guitar and vocals and Phil Wiggins on harmonica:
Gotta love the way Cephas hammers out the accompaniment at the end, slowing like a train coming into a station, as Wiggins' harmonica transforms itself into a train whistle
Cephas was an exponent of the so-called Piedmont blues style of guitar - as was Frank Hutchison decades before. Hutchison was a white coal miner from West Virginia, and this 1929 recording is one of the earliest waxed of the tune:
Now for a couple of more contemporary takes on the song. First, the irrepressible skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan brings his signature style to "Bill":
This was recoded at a performance in Belfast in 1998, and that is of course Donegan disciple Van Morrison on high harmony and the second verse.
Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio in 1961 at the height of its phenomenal popularity in a bitter dispute with his bandmates over both finances and the group's musical direction. Almost immediately, he formed Dave Guard & The Whiskeyhill Singers with Cyrus Faryar, a Punahou schoolmate from Hawaii, KT bassist and jazz musician par excellence David "Buck" Wheat, and emerging folk star Judy Henske. Guard maintained in an interview in the mid-1980s that he was compelled to do so by contractual obligations with Capitol Records, who insisted that he owed them another record album, Trio member or not. The Whiskeyhill Singers made a valiant effort to create the kind of sound and repertoire that Guard felt that the Trio had moved away from, but by the 80s he had come to regard the effort as a failure, artistically as well as commercially. The group recorded but one released album and several tracks for another, and the whole experiment lasted a mere six months, leaving Guard with $10,000 of debt and a one-way ticket to Australia for himself and his growing family. The group did play a set at a major event at the Hollywood Bowl before disbanding, and Guard chose "Railroad Bill" as the opener:
Henske had left the group before this show, and Liz Seneff is the female voice here. Many of Guard's fans have always felt that he was being unduly harsh on the quality of what the WHS had created, and that had the group had more time to jell, it might have become something special. Their version of the song suggests that such might well have been the case - it has the signature energy, inventive banjo instrumentation, and creative harmonies of the earliest Kingston Trio recordings.
Finally, contemporary roots star Gillian Welch and her longtime collaborator David Rawlings have re-imagined "Railroad Bill" into something very different - beautiful harmonizing here:
Welch and Rawlings turn Bill into a sympathetic character, and the slower rhythm is reminiscent of some early versions of "Jesse James," the modified pace of both creating a mournful aura unusual for the tunes.
Following the "get your picture taken with a corpse" travesty after Bill's death, the body was finally interred in an unmarked grave, location unknown. But folk hero or simple murderer, Raillroad Bill aka Morris Slater aka Bill McCoy has no need of a tombstone. His immortality is guaranteed by the fact that people have been singing his song for nearly a century, and there is no sign that that will change any time soon.