Not long ago, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry took a long train ride, from Chicago to LA, stopping at stations to record great railroad songs. The resulting album, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad (Cooking Vinyl), features “Rock Island Line”—a durable song that’s been covered by everyone from Lead Belly to Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney.
The folklorist and musicologist John Lomax recorded the earliest example of the song on a prison farm in Arkansas in 1934, and it’s the basis for the arrangement here. This Library of Congress version is distinguished by a classic call-and-response pattern in the chorus: a leader sings a line, then the rest of the group provides an answer in unison. The original recording is a cappella, meaning without instrumental support, and the harmony is static, essentially based on one long I chord (A). I’ve added the IV and V chords (D and E, respectively) to keep you from getting bored when playing the song.
If you’re a strummer, use the basic pattern shown here in notation; if you’re more of a fingerpicker, a basic Travis pattern works nicely. Remember to pick the notes on the bottom strings with your thumb (t) or thumb pick, and those on the highest strings with your index (i) and middle (m) fingers, letting everything ring as long as possible.
Whether you strum or fingerpick “Rock Island Line,” play it with a slight swing feel and think about a locomotive’s incessant rhythm as you work through this classic railroad song.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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