*This article originally published as Laborde’s editor’s note in the January/February 2021 issue of Louisiana Life Magazine
Let us pause a moment to consider midnight trains:
Winston Hall is a Shreveport musician, song writer and music history buff. His town was once the home of the “Louisiana Hayride,” a Grand Ole Opry-type radio concert that helped grease many careers including that of Elvis and Hank Williams.
Williams lived in the Shreveport area for a while around 1948. His first house just so happened to be down the road a piece from where Hall would one day live. It is relevant to this story that a railroad track was across the street from the house.
In 1949 Williams recorded, “I Am So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Elvis, himself, would refer to the piece as the “saddest song I ever heard,” but oh there was such poetry in the sadness.
The silence of a falling star,
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are,
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
Williams, who is credited as the song writer, recorded it in 1949. So, the record would have come into being around the time that the singer was living in Shreveport across the street from the railroad track.
Conceding that this is pure conjecture, Hall nevertheless says, “when I laid in bed hearing the midnight train whining low past my house on Mansfield Road every night, I couldn’t help but believe that Hank too laid in bed hearing the same damn thing night after night after night and that sank into his songwriting subconscious.”
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low:
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
Huddie Ledbetter was born near Shreveport in 1888. In his world he learned to play the early blues that was so popular in the Black community. As an adult he developed a following under the name of Lead Belly. He also developed a criminal record and spent time in various jails including Angola. Behind bars he would have heard a southern folksong that was especially popular among prisoners, “The Midnight Special.” The song would eventually be recorded by many people, but Lead Belly arguably made the definitie recording.
Well, you wake up in the mornin’, you hear the work bell ring
And they march you to the table, you see the same old thing
Lead Belly died in 1949 the same year that Hank Williams recorded “I am so Lonesome…” The fascination with midnight trains transcended generations.
What is it about trains, especially those at midnight that seem to captivate the muse? Hall thinks it might be a symbol of hope, a glow of something coming around the bend.
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me
Let the Midnight Special shine a ever lovin’ light on me
In 1968 Johnny Cash stepped on stage before an auditorium of inmates at Folsom Prison and transported the gathering into redemption:
I hear the train a-comin’
It’s rollin’ ‘round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since I don’t know when
Cash knew where he wanted that train to take him:
Far from Folsom Prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away
Each midnight brings him closer to the day when he too could climb aboard that train.
Errol Laborde, Executive Editor