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The classic song “The Midnight Special,” though its authorship is often credited to jazz and folk legend Lead Belly, is likely more of a composite song comprised of verses frequently used in other “prison” and blues songs popularized during the depression and taken up later as “traditional blues.”

“The train in the song was a real train, the Southern Pacific’s Golden Gate Limited. It pulled out of the Southern Pacific depot at Houston, Texas at midnight sharp heading for San Antonio, El Paso and eventually California. It ran right past the Texas State Prison Farm at Sugar Land (called the Central Unit), just outside Houston…Prisoners lying awake could easily hear the sound of that train rumbling through the darkness. And if the ‘ever-lovin’ light’ from the headlamp shone through the barred windows and landed on a convict, legend says that man would soon go free…

“‘The Midnight Special’ was first introduced to northern audiences in the mid 1930s by folk singer and folk song composer Lead Belly, who had done time at Sugar Land [prison]. Lead Belly recorded at least three versions of the song, one with the Golden Gate Quartet, a slick gospel group (recorded for RCA at Victor Studio #2, NYC, June 15, 1940). The earliest known recording of the song, however, is by the bluesman Sam Collins.” —Wikipedia

The Midnight Special Lyrics

One day, one day, Sir
I was walking along
I heard that special
Singing a lonesome song

Chorus:
Oh, let the Midnight Special
Shine her light on me
Let the Midnight Special
Shine her ever lovin light on me

If you ever go to Houston
You know you better walk right
You know you better not stagger
You know you better not fight
Because the sheriff will just arrest you
You know he’ll carry you down
And you can bet your bottom dollar
Oh Lord, you’re penitentiary bound

Chorus

Yonder come little Rosie
How in the world do you know?
I can tell her by her apron
And the dress she wore
Umbrella on her shoulder
Piece of paper in her hand
Goes a marchin to the Captain
Says I want my man

Chorus

Now here comes jumpin’ Judy
I’ll tell you how I know
You know, Judy brought jumpin’
To the whole wide world
She brought it in the morning
Just about the break of day
You know, if I ever get to jumpin’
Oh Lord, I’ll up and jump away.

“The Midnight Special” was further popularized by the TV show of the same name that aired at 1:00am weekly from 1973 to 1982.

THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL ultimately showcased over 1200 superstars of rock, R&B, country, and disco. Voice-talent legend Wolfman Jack hosted.

“It was Burt Sugarman, who had provided countless game shows and music/variety hours for the network, who first pitched the idea of a weekly program that would follow Carson to take advantage of Johnny’s enormous audience. Since there was no network programming on after 1:00 a.m. in those days, there’d be no competition. Nonetheless, NBC initially rejected the idea…

“Sugarman, though, believed there was a gold mine waiting to be tapped – he bought the air time himself, then sold it to Chevrolet, the show’s first sponsor. When Midnight Special premiered in February 1973 to huge numbers, NBC decided Sugarman ‘may have been on to something after all, and so they renegotiated,’ relates [Paul] Brownstein [of Brownstein Productions]. “But he took a huge leap of faith in creating this venue for music. You’ve got to give him full credit.” Indeed, the success of Midnight Special begat The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, then later Late Night with David Letterman“. —EdRobertson.com

Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special – Legendary Performances 1974

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