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Origins: Railroad Bill


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Lyr Req: Railroad Bill (22)
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Chords Req: Railroad Bill (Etta Baker) (9)

richardw 15 May 00 - 08:36 PM
catspaw49 15 May 00 - 09:46 PM
Stewie 15 May 00 - 10:17 PM
Art Thieme 15 May 00 - 10:23 PM
GUEST,Mrr 16 May 00 - 11:30 AM
richardw 16 May 00 - 11:40 AM
Stefan Wirz 16 May 00 - 11:43 AM
Art Thieme 16 May 00 - 03:32 PM
Mbo 16 May 00 - 03:48 PM
Joe Offer 16 May 00 - 04:58 PM
richardw 16 May 00 - 08:38 PM
Sourdough 16 May 00 - 09:18 PM
richardw 16 May 00 - 11:50 PM
GUEST,Aoife 17 May 00 - 11:39 PM
GUEST,Roger the skiffler 18 May 00 - 04:20 AM
richardw 15 Nov 01 - 06:01 PM
SharonA 16 Nov 01 - 02:34 PM
Erica Smith 16 Nov 01 - 05:08 PM
Micca 18 Mar 03 - 07:43 PM
Mudlark 18 Mar 03 - 10:01 PM
GUEST,Q 18 Mar 03 - 10:09 PM
Stewie 19 Mar 03 - 02:08 AM
GUEST,C.B. 22 Jan 05 - 04:34 AM
GUEST 22 Jan 05 - 08:30 AM
GUEST,Bob Coltman 22 Jan 05 - 09:59 AM
GUEST,Bob Coltman 22 Jan 05 - 10:10 AM
GUEST,Joe_F 22 Jan 05 - 10:40 AM
Midchuck 22 Jan 05 - 11:22 AM
GUEST,Bob Coltman 22 Jan 05 - 11:56 AM
GUEST,Bob Coltman 22 Jan 05 - 12:08 PM
Azizi 22 Jan 05 - 12:33 PM
Azizi 22 Jan 05 - 01:17 PM
Stilly River Sage 22 Jan 05 - 01:27 PM
Azizi 22 Jan 05 - 02:24 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 22 Jan 05 - 02:48 PM
Stilly River Sage 22 Jan 05 - 03:04 PM
Azizi 22 Jan 05 - 04:13 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 22 Jan 05 - 04:42 PM
GUEST,Art Thieme 22 Jan 05 - 06:07 PM
Uke 30 Nov 05 - 06:20 PM
GUEST,richard wright 03 Feb 08 - 02:36 PM
Phil Cooper 03 Feb 08 - 11:52 PM
GUEST,Carol 20 Jun 09 - 03:58 PM
Goose Gander 04 Nov 09 - 01:27 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 10 Jun 15 - 06:24 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 10 Jun 15 - 06:34 PM
GUEST 22 Dec 16 - 09:00 AM
Mrrzy 22 Dec 16 - 09:44 AM
GUEST 26 May 18 - 02:53 PM
GUEST,wcb 13 Feb 21 - 07:26 PM
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Subject: Railroad Bill
From: richardw
Date: 15 May 00 - 08:36 PM

Does anyone know the origins of Railroad Bill? I have a song fragment that goes:

English Bill, English Bill, Never worked and never will, Get away girls or I'll tossle your curls.

The link to Railroad Bill in the database is broken.

Richard Wright

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: catspaw49
Date: 15 May 00 - 09:46 PM

Everybody plays it and there's a bezillion verses I've heard over the years and I don't know any history to help you, but I had no trouble with the DT. Did you do a Search on the Forum?


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Stewie
Date: 15 May 00 - 10:17 PM

I don't know much about it except that it was a favourite in both the black and white traditions. The Traditional Ballad Index gives its earliest date (printed or recorded) as 1927. The writer of the note for the Ballad Index rejects as 'unproven' the theory that it related to a notorious badman by the name of Morris Slater (also known as Railroad Bill) who terrorised Florida and Alabama in the 1890s. However, Stephen Calt, in his notes to 'The Late Bill Williams: Blues, Rags and Ballads' Blue Goose 2013, had no hesitation in saying that it was 'a salute to a once-notorious Alabama train robber and one of the most famous pieces in black folk tradition'. Bill Williams' recording of the song is splendid - he was first discovered and recorded in 1970 in Kentucky when he was in his 70s!

In 'American Ballads and Folk Songs' the Lomaxes give a text and tune of the song from the black tradition. They assert that Railroad Bill was a completely legendary character. They point out that it is interesting that, in the song, he is captured by another black after eluding white law officers. The song has verses like:

Railroad Bill mighty bad man
Shoot dem light out o' de brakeman's han'
It's dat bad Railroad Bill

The entry in the DT refers to versions by white singers such as Cisco Houston and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. The earliest recording by a white artist was that by the great bluesman from West Virginia, Frank Hutchison. Frank recorded his version at his last recording session in 1929. It has been reissued on CD 'Old-Time Music from West Virginia' Document DOCD 8004.


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Art Thieme
Date: 15 May 00 - 10:23 PM

Railroad Bill (the real one) was MORRIS SLATER.

Norm Cohen says in his fine book, LONG STEEL RAIL, that in the rural south, particularly along the L. & N. railroad in Alabama and western Florida, the name Railroad Bill referred to this Nego desperado who terrorized the countryside. Slater's activities first came to public notice in about 1894 snd continued until March 7, 1897, when he was shot and killed in a grocery store in Atmore, Alabama... It was generally believed he could only be killed by a solid silver miisle because he had escaped being shot so many times. Some thought he could change himself into various animals to escape capture. Food he stole was said to have been left by him outside many cabins during the night. Local blacks protected and housed him. After his death, someone was charging fifty cents a head to view his body.

Railroad Bill turned up more recently in Fannie Flagg's fine novel of life in the South Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe. The kids were kept in line by their parents when the latter scared the hell out of the former by saying things like "If you don't clean up your room Railroad Bill will come and get you !"

Art Thieme

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Mrr
Date: 16 May 00 - 11:30 AM

This is why I love this Cafe; I didn't know any of this cool stuff, and it hadn't even occurred to me to wonder, but this is a song I know and it's TOO COOL to now know its origins! Can hardly wait for someone to answer the Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean query...

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: richardw
Date: 16 May 00 - 11:40 AM

Art and Stewie;

Thanks for the info. The quote I have is from 1937, from a local historian who refers to Billy Barker, after whom Barkerville B.C. is named. Barker was around during the 1860s to 80s. It is said he would come into a saloon or cafe, do a litte step dance and sing, "I'm English Bill, English Bill, Never worked and I never will, get alway girls or I'll tousle your curls." Now, Louis the historian might have picked this up from the Railroad Bill song, but I have worked with his information for years and he is always accurate. He lived at a time when the last of the old timers were still around and he corresponded and talked with them regularly. My gut feeling is that this ditty existed prior to Railroad Bill, but, so far, no luck in finding any other reference.

Richard Wright

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Stefan Wirz
Date: 16 May 00 - 11:43 AM

for those interested: There's a site dedicated to Bill 'Colonel' Williams (1897 - 1973) at:

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Art Thieme
Date: 16 May 00 - 03:32 PM


Thank you. Great info. How can we ever really KNOW ? But by keeping on digging, we might get some closer.


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Mbo
Date: 16 May 00 - 03:48 PM

Wow, the REAL version of Railroad Bill, as Art said up there, was one of the first thing I ever learned to play on guitar, right after "The Two String 2-Step" and "Skip to My Loo". Made quite an impact on a then 14-year-old who could only play 2 strings on the guitar!


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Joe Offer
Date: 16 May 00 - 04:58 PM

There are some functions of the online version of the database search mechanism that are beyond comprehension. It's much easier to find songs from the database if you download the entire database onto your computer. I did a search for railroad bill (in square brackets to search for an exact phrase) and came up with this (click). Hope that helps.
-Joe Offer-
Here's the Traditional Ballad Index entry on this song:

Railroad Bill [Laws I13]

DESCRIPTION: Railroad Bill "never worked and never will"; he drinks, steals, and travels from town to town. His career finally ends when he is shot (and/or arrested). To the very end, all he does is "ride, ride, ride"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1911 (Odum, according to Cohen)
KEYWORDS: rambling robbery crime death train
March 7, 1897 - Death of Morris Slater, known as "Railroad Bill"
REFERENCES (12 citations):
Laws I13, "Railroad Bill"
Cohen-LSRail, pp. 122-131, "Railroad Bill" (2 texts plus many excerpts, 1 tune)
Sandburg, pp. 384-385, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune -- perhaps bowdlerized to eliminate Bill's death)
BrownIII 504, "A Thirty-Two Special on a Forty-Four Frame" (1 two-line fragment, with lyrics sometimes associated with this song)
Scarborough-NegroFS, pp. 251-253, "It's Lookin' fer Railroad Bill" (2 texts plus some small pieces, which might be "Joseph Mica" rather than this)
Lomax-FSNA 304, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-ABFS, pp. 118-120, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Burt, pp. 201-202, "(Railroad Bill)" (1 text)
Cohen/Seeger/Wood, p. 148, "Railroad Bill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Darling-NAS, pp. 240-242, "Railroad Bill" (2 texts)
Silber-FSWB, p. 99 "Railroad Bill" (1 text)
DT 662, (RRBILL*)

Roud #4181
Vera Hall, "Railroad Bill" (AFS 1315 B2, 1323 A3; 1937)
Willie Hill, "Railroad Bill" (on FolkVisions2)
Frank Hutchison, "Railroad Bill" (OKeh 45425, 1930; rec. 1929)
Otis Mote, "Railroad Bill" (OKeh 45389, 1929)
Riley Puckett, "Railroad Bill" (Columbia 15040-D, 1925; Silvertone 3258, 1926)
Roba Stanley, Bob Stanley & (?) Patterson, "Railroad Bill" (OKeh 40295, 1925; rec. 1924)
Hobart Smith, "Railroad Bill" (on LomaxCD1705) (Disc 6081, 1940s)

Notes: Burt reports that Morris Slater, known as "Railroad Bill," "terrorized" Florida and Alabama from 1894 to 1897, initially robbing freight trains, but later perhaps branching out; an Alabana deputy was killed during the saga, and Slater was blamed.
Slater was eventually surrounded and surprised in a grocery, "eating crackers and cheese"; he probably could have been taken, but the posse shot him instead.
Burt's version of the ballad specifically mentions the crackers and cheese, but Laws is rather cautious in reporting Burt's story, and I have to agree with him: I don't think we can prove Burt's Alabama version (published 1927) to be the original.
Cohen adds even more data, noting a number of the parts of "Railroad Bill" seem to precede Slater. Either there was another "Railroad Bill," or the song adapted a large number of other railrod bits. - RBW
File: LI13

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Bibiography
Go to the Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2007 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: richardw
Date: 16 May 00 - 08:38 PM

Thanks Joe;

I did finally get there, but for a day I got an error message.

Art, I think there are a lot of old songs back there somewhere that connect to today. Just last month I found Work's song, "The Ship that Never Returned:, the basis of course for the MTA (old Work was of course not given credit.) Interesting and new to me.

So maybe there is a song called English Bill. I'll keep looking.


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Sourdough
Date: 16 May 00 - 09:18 PM

About The MTA Song:

As I recall, Bess Hawes had a credit for that song although that might be just for the lyric. The melody certainly does seem to have come from Work.

There was a bar in the North Beach area of San Francisco that may or may not still exist. It was across from City Lights bookstore and was in an alley. It was perhaps called Spec's or that was just the name of the bartender. It was filled with an astounding variety of interesting artifacts, a lot of them to do with maritime history. Anyway, I think I remember the bartender saying that they had something to do with the writing of "Charlie on the MTA" although he made a point of deferring to Bess Hawes.


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: richardw
Date: 16 May 00 - 11:50 PM

Thread creep

The database says:

SOURCE: Bob Pfeffer


COMMENTS: Written by Jacqueline Berman (now Steiner) and Bess Hawes as a campaign song for Walter A. O'Brian, the Progressive Party candidate in Boston's mayoral election. When Will Holt recorded the number as a pop song for Coral, the record company was astounded by a deluge of protests from Boston because the song made a hero out of a local "radical". The record was hastily withdrawn an a new version recorded which eliminated O'Brien's claim to musical fame. In the later Kingston Trio release, Walter A. was changed to George to avoid advertising Commies on the air. RG

AIR: The Ship that Never Returned; also The Wreck of the Old 97

The theme of the song is also the same as Work's


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Aoife
Date: 17 May 00 - 11:39 PM

Joan Baez sang it in her "Very Early" Days. What a great song.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Roger the skiffler
Date: 18 May 00 - 04:20 AM

In the pared down version sung on their recent collaboration by Van Morrison and Lonnie Donegan (we wondered how long it would be before you brought this up, Roger)the refrain is rendered as:
Ride, Railroad Bill, Ride, Railroad Bill

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: richardw
Date: 15 Nov 01 - 06:01 PM

Still looking for "English Bill" if anyone finds it.


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: SharonA
Date: 16 Nov 01 - 02:34 PM

Then there's this version of Railroad Bill: Railroad Bill and the Kitten (hee hee)

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Erica Smith
Date: 16 Nov 01 - 05:08 PM

Anne Briggs wrote a wonderful song on Railroad Bill, weaving various mythologies together.

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Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Railroad Bill
From: Micca
Date: 18 Mar 03 - 07:43 PM

Well, I just heard Tom Paley do this song at Sharps Folk Club here in London UK this evening, and I have to say that his Guitar accompaniment (on a 1929 Martin) was a demonstration of stylish picking that few could equal, never mind surpass, Excellent stuff!

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Mudlark
Date: 18 Mar 03 - 10:01 PM

Railroad Bill (mighty dangerous man, he killed a man down in old Alabam) was the first song I learned how to do a Travis pick on. I was so proud of that...makes me smile to think of it. I bet I played it a million times, then added Freight Train for variety.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
Date: 18 Mar 03 - 10:09 PM

Some people relate Railroad Bill to Steamboat Bill. The tune is often the same, but the "Bills" were quite different.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Stewie
Date: 19 Mar 03 - 02:08 AM

As indicated by a posting from Dicho in the other thread linked at the top of this page, my comment that Frank Hutchison was the first white artist to record this was incorrect - as I recall, I took that bit of misinformation from notes on an reissue LP sleeve. Riley Puckett was first to record it in November 1924, but his recording remained unissued until November 1925 as Co 15040-D. Roba Stanley recorded it a month later than Riley, in December 1924, but her recording, OK 40295, was released months earlier than his - in March 1925. The Georgia Crackers recorded it in 1927, but this was unissued. [Info from Meade et alia 'Country Music Sources' p67].


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,C.B.
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 04:34 AM

This may or may not be of interest to anyone who is wondering who Railroad Bill was. I have recently found out that I am a great grandchild of Railroad Bill. Morris Slater is Railroad Bill's real name. I do not know anything about his family origin, but I do know that he came from out West before he showed up in the Alabama/Florida area. He was bi-racial having one white parent, but I do not know which parent. He claimed to have traveled with a circus for seven years and was a performer. He was friend and traveling companion to Charlie Smith, an ex-slave from Texas. There is a book written and a movie about this Charlie Smith and his life, titled "Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree". In this movie, Morgan Freeman portrays Railroad Bill. Morris Slater ended up living in West Florida near the Bama line. He worked in the woods as a turpentine worker. Slater met my grandmother as he roomed at her boarding house. Even though Slater was half white and light skinned, it was against the law for a "colored person" to marry a "white". Never the less, my grandfather was conceived. It is passed down to me that Morris Slater was a gentle, compassionate person with a lot of self pride. After my grandfather was born, Slater moved on in order to protect my greatgrandmother and her child because their relationship had been in secret. Slater was an educated man and I have learned that when he would write letters and mail them, he always painted a black bird on the envelope. Slater always carried his riffle in his pant leg where ever he went. A new sheriff came into town one day and told Slater he would have to pay money to register his gun or give it up. Slater was very poor at the time and did not have the money to pay and he also felt that he had as much right as the "white" man to carry his gun. He simply refused, saying that he had a right and did not have to register his gun. Because of this incident, the law started badgering him. Eventually, the law went after him along with a posse and the intention of taking his gun one way or another. Slater told them to just leave him alone, but they shot at him and he shot back. Afterwards, Slater had to go on the run after becoming a wanted man dead of alive. He was shot at many times and he returned fire in defense, killing a deputy. He then figured what the hey, he had nothing to lose. He began jumping freight cars, stealing the loot, food, money, whatever he could grab. He threw the food off to the poor people along the tracks and delivered food and money to poor people's doors during the night. He was known to the black and poor white communities as "Railroad Bill" and sometimes called "Wild Bill McCoy" or the "Black Robin Hood." He was a master at eluding the law. All sorts of legends grew about Railroad Bill. He was said to be able to jump a river and could jump from tree to tree. Legend has it that many times an unknown bloodhound would appear out of nowhere when the law was on track of Bill. It is said that Railroad Bill turned himself into a bloodhound and ran with the pack of hounds who were chasing himself. He could disapear at the blink of an eye. Even today local folk, especially in the African American communities, believe that the spirit of Railroad Bill still roams about and when good things happen to the poor people it is Railroad Bill still looking out for the less fortunate. I suppose after a few years of running with no hope in site, Railroad Bill became exausted. It was about 1897 when Railroad Bill took his last walk into town one day to a local store. He purchased some cheese and crackers, ate, got up and walked out knowing what was about to happen. Several groups of men were stalking around waiting for their prey. He was shot in the back numerous times until he fell to the ground dead, gun along his side and peace at last. Sheriff McGowan of Atmore, Alabama stands tall in a photo taken of him with Railroad Bill laying dead on back of a wagon. Photo's were sold, pictures were taken along side the body for fifty cents and a person could view his remains for fifty cents. The body was on display for weeks, taken from town to town. I am sure these "Law men" and other "good citizens" were proud of their catch, not to mention a litte richer to boot. I know that many legends, songs and tales were made up about Railroad Bill, most highly exaggerated. There is currently mention of a movie in progress about the legend of Railroad Bill.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 08:30 AM

Fascinating! C.B., you are really helping to fill in the gaps.

The Roba Stanley recording would seem to be the root of this long recorded song trail, though the song's tradition goes back at least nine years earlier. Her version is unusually full...lots of verses, including some that haven't survived. I've gleaned the following from Charles Wolfe, "Roba Stanley, The First Country Sweetheart," a biography / discography printed in Tony Russell's valuable Old Time Music magazine #26, 1977 (out of London). He interviewed Roba Stanley Baldwin in 1976-77 in Gainesville, Florida. Per that article (I summarize):

Roba Stanley first recorded at age 14 in August 1924 and made her last record a little over a year later (marriage at 15 ended her career, as "My husband didn't like for me to play in public much"). She was a chubby white girl who sang with guitar. Then she married, had three kids, later gave away her guitar, and the musical part of her life was pretty much over.

Obscure as she is (she made only four records for Okeh), she may have been the first solo woman singer to broadcast on radio and record country music. Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis were earlier, but Wolfe distinguishes between Roba's roots country music and their fiddle-and-banjo breakdowns.

Born in Dacula, GA (as I believe was Gid Tanner of Skillet Lickers fame), Roba was the daughter of R. M. "Rob" Stanley, a celebrated local fiddle champion whose house was a mecca for musicians near and far. By 1923 Roba was accompanying him for square dances. They debuted on WSB radio in early 1924.

Roba Stanley was, if not the earliest, among the earliest to record "Devilish Mary," the minstrel number "Mr. Chicken," "Frankie and Alvin" (her version of Frankie and Albert/Johnnie), a great "Single Life," and "Railroad Bill."

Where did she get the song? The article isn't specific. Wolfe concludes from his interviews with her that virtually all her songs were "picked up orally from sources in northeast Georgia." Roba made up some of her words. "I'd take me a piece of paper and write and get things to rhyme..."   So some of her verses may have been all or partly hers.

She was passing along a song that was already popular with blacks, if not yet with whites, and had apparently been composed sometime in the previous ten to fifteen years. It was first (as far as I know) reported from Auburn, AL and Lowndes County, AL in 1915 or 1916 in Newman I. White's American Negro Folk Songs, which gives the stanza,

    Railroad Bill did not know
    Dat Jim McMillan had a forty-fo'

and the related Roborus song of the same date:

    Roborus was a mighty mean man,
    He killed my son by the lighten flash.

The song caught fire in the next ten years. By 1925 Dorothy Scarborough in On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs was reporting the song widespread across the south from there to Mississippi.

Riley Puckett could have been Roba's source. He recorded the song slightly earlier than she did, though his record was released later. (She got there first...never underestimate singers' competitive streaks). The ever-popular, hugely recorded blind singer Puckett, with the Skillet Lickers and as soloist, did get some of his material from black tradition.

However, there's the intriguing possibility that Roba's source may have been a black singer she heard locally. That back porch of her father's...or all those places they "played out..." Perhaps the color line got crossed to the extent of a curious girl of, say, 13, stopping to listen to a black street singer on the edge of a shady part of town. But that's speculation.

                   Bob Coltman

Herewith, Roba Stanley's version of Railroad Bill. The local references may reflect her own alterations.


Railroad Bill, ought to be killed,
Got my home in Lawrenceville,
Oh, drive on, you Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, got so mean,
Walked all the way from New Orleans,
Oh, drive on, you Railroad Bill (repeats for every verse except the last)

Railroad Bill, got so fine,
Shot nine holes through a silver dime,

Drink up your whiskey, cross to the bar,
Pistol a-shining like a morning star,

Two dice in Cuba, three craps in Spain,
Spend all my money for gasoline,

Ought to been there when I got paid off,
Had more money than a walkin' boss,

Went to Dacula to get me some meat,
Stanley Brothers sell 'em cheap,

Went to Dacula to get me some flour,
Pool and Pounds they sell 'em higher,

Going to Atlanta, I'm on the nine,
Call up my honey away down the line,

Going to Atlanta, I'm going on the train,
Talk to my honey until she changes her name,

Went down to the creek to take off a run,
First man I seen was Henry McClung,

Went down on the creek to stay out of trouble,
First man I see was John T. Tuggle,

Went up on the mountain to get me a load,
Met Sheriff Garner in the middle of the road,
Oh, ride, ride, ride.

NOTE: Needless to say "Stanley Brothers" in verse 7 doesn't refer to the bluegrass pioneers (that would take time travel, and more coincidence than even traditional music can bear). Ms. Stanley explained it was a store in Dacula, as was Pool & Pounds in verse 8; these are prime candidates for local authorship and just could be Roba's own composition, as could the verses featuring McClung and Tuggle, then constable and deputy in Dacula, and Garner, sheriff in Lawrenceville.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 09:59 AM

Got inspired to root around some more.

Olive Woolley Burt in American Murder Ballads, 1958, really did her homework. She reports the following, I quote:

   From 1894 to March 7, 1897, a Negro outlaw kept Alabama and Florida in a state of terror. He was Morris Slater, nicknamed Railroad Bill, and he always went armed with a .38 Winchester rifle and two heavy revolvers. He was 38 to 40 years of age, a powerfully built fellow, five feet ten in height.

   At first, Railroad Bill confined his activities to robbing freight cars, a predeliction which doubtless gave him his name. He would get into a car and as it rolled along toss out merchandise, which he later picked up. Railroad detectives and town officers set out to catch the robber, but their signal lack of success gave the Negroes of the region--and some of the white folks, too--the idea that Railroad Bill led a charmed life.   Legends burgeoned: Bill could assume the form of a bloodhound and run with the hounds upon his own trail; he could turn into a norse or sheep and calmly watch a posse race by.

   During the pursuit of the robber, which lasted three years, a deputy sheriff of Baldwin County, AL, J.H. Stewart, was killed. Excitement grew, and various schemes were tried. A capable Negro detective was to become chums with Railroad, and when the fellow was off guard, arrest him at gun point. Railroad was never off guard. Suddenly the reports from the detective, Mark Stinson, stopped coming into headquarters. Stinson has never been seen, alive or dead, since that day.

   Finally Railroad killed Sheriff McMillen, and the protests became vehement. J.B. Harlan, former chief of police at Louisville, KY, was asked to take over the hunt. He deputized a number of men grimly determined to bring the bandit in or die in the ttempt. At Atmore, AL, they found their man in a little store eating crackers and cheese. Stealthily the officers surrounded the store. One of them, Constable J.S. McGowan, raised his gun and shot. At the same moment the grocer, seeing re-enforcements at hand, also shot the outlaw, Railroad slumped to the floor, crackers and cheese still clutched in his hand. He was dead.

Burt also notes Bill worked for, and subsquently robbed, the L&N (Louisville and Nashville) Railroad. She says she got her account from the horse's mouth: a first-person story written in the L&N magazine, May 1927, by none other than former police chief Harlan himself.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 10:10 AM

Now for the best and completest version of Railroad Bill I've been able to put together from Olive Woolley Burt and from Dorothy Scarborough, both of whom were in time to catch the still existing late-1920s ballad of Railroad Bill before it became a catch-all for verse scraps like those still sung till today. For my own singing I have revised the verse order somewhat, attempting to set them up chronologically, as follows.

Standin' on the corner, didn't mean no harm,
Policeman grab me by my arm,
Says I'm lookin' for Railroad Bill.

Talk about your bill, your ten-dollar bill,
You never seen a bill like Railroad Bill,
        He'll lay your poor body down.

Railroad Bill, mighty bad man,
Shot them lights out the brakeman's hand,
        They's lookin' for Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, mighty bad man,
Shot all the lights off of the stand,
        That bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, got no wife,
Always lookin' for somebody's life,
That bad…

Railroad Bill, he did not know
That Jim MacMillan had a forty-fo',
        Laid his poor body down.

Railroad Bill, comin' home soon,
Killed MacMillan by the light of the moon,

Railroad Bill cut a mighty big dash,
Killed MacMillan like a lightnin' flash,
He'll lay your poor body down.

First on the table, next on the wall,
Old corn liquor is the cause of it all,
That bad…

Railroad Bill, ridin' on the train,
Tryin' to act big like Cuba and Spain,
That bad…

Get up, old woman, you sleepin' too late,
Railroad Bill's come knockin' on your gate,
That bad…

Railroad Bill, he's got sore eyes,
Won't eat nothin' but apple pies,
That bad…

Railroad Bill, eatin' crackers an' cheese,
Long come the sheriff, chipper as you please,
        Says, ain't you that Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, might big spo't,
Shot all the buttons off the Sheriff's coat,
        You bad Railroad Bill.

Sheriff he got him a special train,
When he got there, was a drivin' rain,
He's lookin'…

Ten policemen, all dressed in blue,
Comin' down the avenue, two by two,
They's lookin'…

Everybody told him, you better go back,
Bill is a-comin' down the railroad track,
That bad…

Ol' Culpepper went up on Number Five,
Goin' bring him back, dead or alive,
That bad…

Railroad Bill lyin' on the grocery floor,
Got shot two times, they shot him two times more,
        They shot down old Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill said before he died,
Fit all the trains so the rounders can ride,
        Didn't it rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.

NOTES: For my own singing I've tended to vary the chorus as above, but the original versions stick rigidly to the refrain of "Lookin' for Railroad Bill."

This makes me wonder if the song was first composed during, or immediately after, the manhunt...that would date it to c. 1897-98.

Note borrowings from "Crawdad Song" and from "Natural-Born Eas'man" / "Jay Gould's Daughter" / "Casey Jones."

Another chorus line I've found reported: Oh, ain't he bad, oh, the railroad man.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Joe_F
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 10:40 AM

A few stanzas I have heard here & there that are in none of the above:

Railroad Bill, standing on a hill,

Lighting a cigar with a ten-dollar bill.

Railroad Bill, he took my wife,

Said if I didn't like it he would take my life.

Railroad Bill ran his train so fast,

Couldn't see the postes as they passed.

--- Joe Fineman

||: Look yonder, partner, see that eagle rise.          :||

||: He was born on land, but he sure enjoys the skies. :||

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Midchuck
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 11:22 AM

.38 Special on a .45 frame.
How can I miss when I got dead aim...

Buy me a pistol, long as my arm
Kill everybody that ever done me harm...


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 11:56 AM

But we haven't been helping out richardw with his question re "English Bill." So I've been researching that. I haven't yet been able to come up with any further lyrics, but here's the story so far.

Despite the title, "English Bill" looks like it must be a Canadian saloon song dating from the Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia, 1860s. It would seem to be what Richard Wright was looking for way back in May 2000. (Richard are you still out there?). Clearly this is the Barkerville reference, the actual Billy Barker, and the Skelton reference below may have more of the song??? I hope. The following is from

Sherrill Grace's article "Staging "North" in BC: Two Cariboo Gold Rush Plays," published in Canadian Theatre Review - Issue 101, Winter 2000, discusses a play called The Road Runs North" by Gwen Pharis Ringwood, about the Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia ("the west beyond the west") in the 1860s. Quoting:

…the Cariboo is represented as a romantic space for adventure, as a mysterious, dangerous, wild zone, primarily for men, and as a space to be travelled through in search of treasure that is historical and material yet highly symbolic: gold! …..

[Barkerville was a center of the gold rush activity. RC]

"The Road Runs North" celebrates a key foundational moment in the history of British Columbia. It focuses on Billy Barker and the development of the road that runs north as the Cariboo is opened to mining and settlement. Billy functions as a narrator...

[characters in the play are based on the real historical figures of Judge Begbie, Billy Barker, "Frenchy Bill" Ballou, Elizabeth Collyer, Blackie Birdsall, et al. Grace continues:]

Music is used .... as a vehicle for explaining the plot and furthering action. There are solo songs and several choral pieces that function in a recitative manner, and, in one instance, Ringwood draws upon the historical record for her lyrics. At several points, Barker bursts forth with his "signature" song, which, according to Skelton, the real Barker liked to sing in saloons:

I'm English Bill
Never worked, an' never will.
Get away girls,
Or I'll tousle your curls.
(qtd. in Skelton 60)

Although there is no score for this ditty, there are scores and lyrics for seventeen songs.

[The source referenced is: Skelton, Robin. They Call It the Cariboo. Victoria: Sono Nis, 1980.]

I'm continuing the search and may be able to come up with more. Chances are the "English Bill" snatch may derive from a music hall original. The fact that the singer's name was Bill, though, may mean he just plain made it up back in the 1860s. We'll see.   -- Bob

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Bob Coltman
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 12:08 PM

Next installment in the saga of "English Bill" ... still no pointers to any older source, but here's some info about Bill Barker and the play-by-play for the song. The following is verbatim from, of all things, a genealogy site:

There was a real historical character called Billy Barker from the St Austell area who emigrated to Canada, ended up in the gold rush in the Yukon, struck it rich, and the town of Barkerville up there is named after him today.

I enclose a passage about him from John Rowe's Book "The Hard Rock Men" the story of the Cornish emigrants on the North American Mining frontier.

Towards the end of his letter, Raby added
(24. Mining Journal (London), 21 May 1864: letter of Martin Raby to Captain Mitchell, 17 February 1864.)
that no-one should come to Cariboo without at least five hundred dollars in his pocket when he arrived, and that the winters were long and cold, the thermometer standing at thirty below when he wrote on I7 February I864.

It was, however, another Cornishman who discovered the greatest bonanza at Williams Creek. Billy Barker, a seaman, had been among the first adventurers who sought gold on the Lower Fraser in I858. Not particularly lucky but still hopeful, he ventured further and further up the river. With seven others, including the Hankin brothers who may have been fellow Cousin Jacks, Barker found a rich gold lode in August I862, and after spending a week celebrating their discovery, the party went to work; the claim is reputed to have been worth at least half a million dollars, but Billy's share looked pretty wan after a winter spent in Victoria honeymooning with a shipwrecked London widow. He brought her back to the diggings with him in the spring, but there she found the company of younger men more congenial than that of her stocky, grizzle-bearded, bow-legged husband who, now most of the money was spent, liked to pass his evenings when the day's work was done sitting like other Cousin Jack miners before a blazing fire in his stockinged feet, perhaps even reading the Pickwick Papers and regretting that he had not heeded Tony Weller's admonitory advice about 'vidders'.

When he had the gold, Billy Barker 'whooped it up' in the saloons with the best of them, but with his not uncommon weaknesses for wine, women and song, Billy and gold were apt quickly to part company. Up in the Cariboo country it almost became a legend how he would come into a saloon, put down a few drinks, and then start hopping and jigging about proclaiming

I'm English Bill, Never worked and never will
Get away girls Or I'll tousle your curls!

He lived to be seventy-four, old indeed for a Cornish miner who lived rough most of his days, dying in a Victoria poorhouse for aged men. The town named after him, Barkerville, through a disastrous fire in September I868 and the exhaustion of rich 'pay dirt', can hardly be said to have survived him, though it did not become completely a ghost town. Billy Barker was probably the only Cousin Jack miner to have a town named after him, a town whose life was as turbulent, chequered, and marked by such varying fortunes as his own. But all along the Pacific Coast region, from Bering Straits down to the Sonora Desert, in those days were adventurous and luckless men like Billy who could truly carol

Let their chorus loudly ring,
The Broken Miner's lot they sing,
Most bitter is the lot indeed
Of him who cannot find the lead.
Search continues. -- Bob

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Azizi
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 12:33 PM

Thomas W. Talley's 1922 collection "Negro Folk Rhymes" has a rhyme he calls "Wild Negro Bill" {p. 94 of Kennikat Press edition.

The verses Talley presents contain the N word {represented in my post as "N---"}

I'se wild N----- Bill
From Redpepper Hill.
I never did wo'k an' I never will

I's done killed de Boss.
I'se knocked down de hoss.
I'se eats up raw goose widout apple sauce!

I'se Run-a-way Bill,
I knows dwy mought kill;
But old Mosser hain't cotch me,
an' he never will!


Talley wrote that many of his songs were generations old..Since sneaking into railroad cars was often used by runaways, could
'Wild N--- Bill' be the source of "Railroad Bill?

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Azizi
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 01:17 PM

In her 1925 collection 'On The Trail Of Negro Folk Songs" Dorothy Scarborough writes:

"There are various Negro versions of Railroad Bill, the best that I have found being given by Professor Odum in Journal of American Folklore. {Folklore Associates edition; page 251-252}

I's Looking Fer Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill mighty bad man,
Shoot dem lights out o' de brakeman's hand-
It's lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill mighty bad man,
Shoot the lamps all off the stan'-
An it's lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

First on table, next on wall,
Ole corn whiskey cause of it all-
It's looking fer Railroad Bill.

Ole McMillan had a special train,
When he got there wus a shower a rain-
Wus lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

Ev'body tole him he better turn back,
Railroad Bill wus goin' down the track-
An it's lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

Well, the pilicemen all dressed in blue,
Comin down sidewalk two by two,
Wus lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill he had no wife,
Always lookin fer somebody's life-
An it's lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill was the worst ole coon
Killed McMillan by the light o' the moon-
It's lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

Ole Culpepper went up on Number Five,
Goin' bring him back, dead or alive,
Wus lookin' fer Railroad Bill.

Standin' on the corner, did n't mean no harm,
Policeman grab me the arm-
Wus lookin' fer Railroad Bill."

end of quote

Scaborough {Odum} writes 'It's lookin' fer Railroad Bill.' but I wonder if this was a mis-hearing of "I'se lookin fer Railroad Bill"..

Scaborough also includes this verse:

Railroad Bill got so fine
He shot a hole in a silver dime
Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill
Railroad Bll got sore eyes,
An' won't eat nothin' apple pies.

(p. 253 Folklore Associates edition, 1963}

Needless to say, to African Americans of that time 'Railroad Bill' was an anti-hero, a man with attitude who didn't take no stuff, who challenged the system and won {at least for a while}.

"Coon" was used as an informal referent for African Americans by both Black Americans and others. Though it is now, then it was not necessarily a negative term. The only positive use of 'coon' that I have ever heard among African Americans {though it's very rarely used now} is the internal rhyme "ace boon coon" as in "You're my ace boon coon".

Though I don't view Wild N--- Bill/Railroad Bill as a role model for contemporary African Americans, I think it's a shame that so few of us know this folklore...

Ms. Azizi

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 01:27 PM

The links at the top of this thread include the reference to "Railroad Bill and the Kitten." I have a recording of Michael Cooney singing that one; I didn't realize that he hadn't written it. The DT says Andy Breckman. Cute song, but it really has nothing to do with the other ballad and the character name appears to be a coincidence.


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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Azizi
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 02:24 PM

"dwy" in my post of the Talley rhyme is supposed to read "dey".

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 02:48 PM

According to W. B. Dinwiddie, who moved into Escambia County in 1893, Slater was a victim rather than a killer. Contrary opinions of this kind also could have contributed to the development of the legend (the following extracted from Cohen, "Long Steel Rail," p. 125, Dinwiddie letter). Slater was a turpentine worker, so fast in his job that he earned the nickname "Railroad Time." Railroad detectives looking for boxcar thieves vowed to get a suspect, R. R. "Bill," and mixed up identities. Slater heard of their boast to take him dead or alive, got his Winchester and .45 revolver and took to the swamps. A month later a store was broken into and a few items taken. The detectives let it be known that 'Railroad Bill' was the culprit. Slater wandered up and down the L & N tracks for a couple of years and never was known to bother anyone who did not start 'the ball rolling first.' Slater was "eventually killed in Tidmore and Ward's general Store at Williams Station (Atmore) by a shot in the back from a cowardly bystander." (Shades of Jesse James!).

E. C. Perrow collected "Railroad Bill" fragments from Alabama and Mississippi blacks in 1909, some 12 years after the events.
Perrow commented, "There is a considerable amount of shooting going on in the country all the time, although formerly there was more than there is now."
Some of these verses are given above, but it may be of interest to see these first printed verses together.


A. Mrs. C. Brown, 1909, AL
Railroad Bill cut a mighty big dash,
Killed McMillan like a lightnin' flash.
En he'll lay yo po body daown.

Railroad Bill ride on de train,
Tryin t'ac big like Cuba en Spain.
En he'll lay yo po body daown.

Get up, ole woman, you sleepin' too late!
Ef' Railroad Bill come knockin' at yo gate,
He'll lay yo po body daown.

Talk about yo bill, yo ten-dollah bill,
But you never seen a bill like Railroad Bill.
En he'll lay yo po body daown.

B. MS of R. J. Slay, 1909, MS
Railroad Bill said before he died,
He'd fit all the trains so the rounders could ride.
Oh, ain't he bad, oh, railroad man!

Railroad Bill cut a mighty big dash;
He killed Bill Johnson with a lightning-flash.
Oh, ain't he bad, oh, railroad man!

C. J. R. Anderson, 1909, MS
Railroad Bill is a mighty bad man,
Come skipping and dodging through this land.

E. C. Perrow, 1912, Songs and Rhymes from the South, Part 1, JAFL XXV, p. 155.

Howard W. Odum published Railroad Bill verses in 1911. The story was taking off and 'Bill' became known in the west, the story probably carried there by black railroaders and cowboys.

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Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 03:04 PM

Reminiscent of the Joaquin Murietta story out in California. Villian by the popular culture story, but in fact a complex of resistance and breaking out of an oppressive system.


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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: Azizi
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 04:13 PM

Possible thread drift:

We'll probably never know, but I wonder if there is any connection between Railroad Bill and this children's rhyme:


Hello Bill
Where you goin Bill
Downtown Bill
What for Bill
To pay my gas bill
How much Bill
Ten dollar bill
Goodbye Bill

from Arnold Siskind, "Harlem Photographers 1932-194O" p. 26

Though it's composed as a dialogue, this play on words rhyme is chanted in unison while doing hand claps, jumping rope, or bouncing a ball.

I vaguely remember as a child chanting that first line as "Hello, Hello, Hello Bill/where are you going Bill"etc.

Again, this rhyme may have nothing to do with Railroad Bill, and there's probably no way of finding out if it does or doesn't.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 04:42 PM

Possibly supporting the idea that "English Bill" is a composed song from a musical play is the fact that it seems to be absent from Canadian folk song references. Of course, there seems to have been little interest in songs from the west coast and the mining that took place in the region.

Fowke, Mills and Blume have just one miners song in their book, "Canada's Story in Song," and that one is about the Klondike Gold Rush. The "Canadian Journal for Traditional Music," in an article by Fowke, lists the 'Canadian' songs from the Family Herald and Weekly Star- a long list but no "English Bill." There is no mention in "Folklore of Canada," by Fowke.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Art Thieme
Date: 22 Jan 05 - 06:07 PM

A fine thread---everyone! It makes the man come alive again. And no ghost or kiss anywhere.


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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: Uke
Date: 30 Nov 05 - 06:20 PM

A version of this was collected in New Zealand in the 1930s from some railwaymen. It possibly is an adaptation of the various 78s that were around before then, or maybe the Caribou gold rush song (there was plenty of international travel with the goldrushes), but the lyric takes quite a different track (excuse the pun):

(Chorus)Railway Bill, Railway Bill,
He never worked an he never will,
They'll fire old Railway Bill.

Way down the line, at any time,
Who's that working on the railway line?
Why there is poor old Bill.

We'll bang and strike, this steel spike,
Nobody works like good old Mike,
But never poor old Bill.

Go toot the peeper, go press the beeper,
Bill he' a railway sleeper,
Go wake up poor old Bill.

(New Zealand Folksongs, ed. Neil Colquhoun, 1972.)

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,richard wright
Date: 03 Feb 08 - 02:36 PM

Thanks for the updates.
I still have not found the source of Billy's song.

However, to correct a couple of things:
Billy Barker is now known not to have been a Cornishman or "sailor" per se. He was from the March area and was a canalboatman.

The Klondike (Klondyke) goldrush was in the Yukon in the 1890s and not connected to the Cariboo or Fraser River rushes from 1858 to the 1860s.

I agree with Bob that the song could well be a snippet of a music hall song as those are the songs that were presented at the Theatre Royal in Barkerville, where I am now the producer.

Thanks for everyones ideas


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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: Phil Cooper
Date: 03 Feb 08 - 11:52 PM

Didn't Sparky Rucker collate all the verses of Railroad Bill in historical, chronological order for Come For to Sing Magazine? I didn't keep my back issues, but I believe that was one of the articles he had done for the mag.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Carol
Date: 20 Jun 09 - 03:58 PM

More information, including the death picture of Railroad Bill, can be seen at Bill Outlaw . Many reports say that his face was badly mangled by the shooting, it doesn't appear that way in the photo, at least on the left side of his face.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: Goose Gander
Date: 04 Nov 09 - 01:27 PM

More about Railroad Bill - some valid insights though the tone is rather strident for an academic article.

Jesse James, Rairoad Bill . . . thugs all, I say.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 10 Jun 15 - 06:24 PM

Norm was off by a year on the date; the fatal shooting was on Mar. 7, 1896. (Montevallo [Alabama] _News_, Mar. 12, 1896.)

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 10 Jun 15 - 06:34 PM

Oh, Norm got that "Mar. 7, 1897" date from Burt's 1958 book, looks like.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
Date: 22 Dec 16 - 09:00 AM

Seems a lot of these songs existed before railroad bill was around, and people just adjusted lyrics to kind of fit.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: Mrrzy
Date: 22 Dec 16 - 09:44 AM

What great stories from this one person! CB, you can be proud indeed!

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
Date: 26 May 18 - 02:53 PM

My grandpa - H . D. Kinard recorded it in 1939. It is listed in the library of congress he played it on the banjo

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,wcb
Date: 13 Feb 21 - 07:26 PM

railroad bill worked in florida ,turpentine farm , killed a sheriff went on the run, he was killed in atmore alabama he robbed train's bettween fla.and al. what the law never understood was why did he rob a train near montgomery al. stole a box containing gold , nexted morning robbed a bank in atmore al. some believe there was more than one railroad bill but the robbery's stopped so no one was 100% sure some say if there was only one then the gold in the box is hid near his last train robbery

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,wcb
Date: 13 Feb 21 - 07:41 PM

bill was known to stay in a run down shack near montgomery al. at time's he was said to have no family the song has been recorded by many artist i remember ol'timer's singing that song the part i liked as a boy was,, i got a 38 special on a forty forty frame how can i miss him when i have dead aim now,i'm gonna ride ride ride my railroad train

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,#
Date: 14 Feb 21 - 04:54 PM

Good site about the song and its history AND the man the song's about.

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Subject: RE: Origins: Railroad Bill
From: GUEST,#
Date: 14 Feb 21 - 05:24 PM

Excellent biography begins at p.11

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