First recorded at Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas, by John Lomax (1934).
Popular versions by Lead Belly (1937), Lonnie Donegan (UK #8 1955).
Also recorded by Bobby Darin & The Jaybirds (1956), The Beatles (1969, released as a bootleg 1994).
From the wiki: “‘Rock Island Line’ is an American Blues/Folk song first recorded by John Lomax in 1934 as sung by inmates in an Arkansas State Prison, and later popularized by Lead Belly. Many versions have been recorded by other artists, most significantly the world-wide hit version in the mid-1950s by Lonnie Donegan. The song is ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.
“Donegan’s recording, released as a single in late 1955, signaled the start of the UK ‘skiffle’ craze. This recording featured Donegan, Chris Barber on double bass and washboard player (Beryl Bryden), but as it was part of a Chris Barber’s Jazz Band session for Decca Records, Donegan received no royalties from Decca for record sales, beyond his original session fee.
“Skiffle music and ‘Rock Island Line’, in particular, would be big factors in The Beatles’ origin story. In 1997 George Harrison penned a foreword to Chas. McDevitt’s book ‘Skiffle’ in which he wrote: ‘Of course Lonnie Donegan was the major reason so many of us loved this music for he was full of vitality and I saw him ‘live’ at the Liverpool Empire on many occasions. I even knocked on the door of a house in the next road to mine where he was visiting and got his autograph.’
“The ‘King of Skiffle’ was also a catalyst for the 16-year-old John Lennon. He’d listened to the music on Radio Luxembourg and thought that it wasn’t difficult to play, so he asked his Aunt Mimi if she could get him a guitar. He also bought a 78rpm record of Rock Island Line, which he later sold to a schoolmate.
“Bobby Darin’s debut single was a 1956 recording of ‘Rock Island Line’. For his first television performance (on Stage Show), he sang this song with the lyrics written on the palms of his hands as there were no cue cards provided for him.”
Lead Belly, “Rock Island Line” (1937):
The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group, “Rock Island Line” (1955):
Bobby Darin & The Jaybirds, “Rock Island Line” (1956):
The Beatles, “Rock Island Line” (1969):