Pick Me!

A weblog by Laura Moncur


Midnight Special

Filed under: General — Laura Moncur @ 12:54 pm

“I don’t know how I opened up Midnight Special on DDR, but it’s unlocked. I don’t know what I did to unlock it.”

Mike responded in song, “Let the Midnight Special, shine a light on me.”

The two of us finished the chorus together and I didn’t bother reiterating that the song on DDR-U2 is a totally different song with the same name.

“What does that song mean?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s a…”

“Drug reference?”

“No, a reference to God, but same difference. Either that or a great way to get auto parts.”

“I thought the phrase ‘Midnight Special’ referred to a gun.”

“I don’t know.”

“I think in the 70’s and early 80’s there were these cheap guns, kind of like a revolver or something, that they would sell really cheap on ‘Midnight Specials.’ I thought that’s what that meant. I guess an auto parts store could have a Midnight Special sale too, I guess.”

“No, I think it refers to stealing parts, you know, like ‘Midnight Auto.’ You know, you find a car that’s the same make as yours and you steal the part you need.”

“I did that for a rear view mirror once for my Yugo.”

“You’re going straight to Hell.”

“Hey, it was impossible to get parts for that thing. Someone stole my rear view mirror, so I stole one back.”

“So the entire human race is one entity to you? Someone steals from you, so it’s ok to choose another person at random to steal from?”

“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds bad.” I was feeling guilty. I thought of that person in West Valley over twenty years ago coming out to his crappy red Yugo and realizing his rear view mirror was missing. I started singing the chorus of Midnight Special again and Mike groaned. The song was in my head and it was skipping over and over, playing the first line of the chorus in my mind and starting again.

“That song reminds me of that Twilight Zone movie with Dan Akroyd.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ve heard that song anywhere else.”

“Who sings that song, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Alabama?”

“I thought it was Creedence.”


“CCR, but it doesn’t sound like Fogarty.”

“It might be someone different in the movie.”

I planned on looking it up some time later in the day and emailing him all the information, but several hours later, I’m looking at the Google results and I’m just as clueless as I was this morning.

Was it Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival, ABBA or Paul McCartney? It was Creedence. But, is it a gun, God, drugs or felony auto part procurement? None of the above, apparently. According to The Prison Diaries of Sethuraman Srinivasan Jr, it’s about getting out of jail.

“Specifically, I’m going to explain what the Hell the title “The Midnight Special” has to do with anything. You see, I’ve heard unconfirmed reports that the old blues tune of the same name (it was covered by the Kingston Trio and Creedance Clearwater Revival, among others) was in fact written about this particular pokey. Seems that when the light from the midnight train coming down from Houston shined on an inmate, legend had it that he would be released. Hence the lines ‘Let the Midnight Special – Shine its light on me – Let the Midnight Special – Shine its everloving light on me.’”

Of course, I have been unable to fathom if this website is a work of fiction, an online journal or both. It looks like a primitive weblog (started in 2000) of a pretty interesting guy (he was on Jeopardy!). He teaches history at the University of Houston and in 1998 taught Southern History to inmates in a Texas prison (thus explaining his knowledge of prison-lore). Last entry is dated 2003 and I can’t find him anywhere else except quoted in history journals. After reading through his site, I’m wishing he would revive his blog in a more conventional format.

I guess I believe him. There’s not much else competing with him as far as an explanation. I liked it better when I believed it was a gun. I guess I believe guns will set us free far more than the light from a train. How screwed up is that? I have no faith in superstition, violent tendencies and I was willing to steal auto parts from innocent victims. Sometimes I wonder why I’m not in prison.



  1. Midnight Special… I was doing some research on the meaning of this song and I came across this page after your blog. Thought that you might be interested. (-:


    For those suffering in southern prisons and for whom railroad travel was an impossibility, the free movement of the train took on a deeper symbolism. Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, wrote his famous Midnight Special while in a Texas penitentiary. Each night a train left Houston heading for the west coast. It went by the penitentiary around midnight, shining its lights over the prison buildings. The inmates believed that any person illuminated by those lights in passing would be the next one released:

    Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me, Let the Midnight Special shine her ever lovin’ light on me.

    Comment by Sarah — 5/17/2005 @ 9:47 pm

  2. Here’s another one I found…should seal the deal (-:

    Midnight Special Like so many American folk songs, the hero of “The Midnight Special” is not a person but a train. Folklorists report that the legendary train in the song was a real train called The Golden Gate Limited. It pulled out of the Southern Pacific depot at Houston, TX at midnight sharp, headed for San Antonio, El Paso and other points west and ran right past the Texas State Prison Farm at Sugar Land, just outside Houston. Prisoners lying awake could easily hear the sound of that train crashing 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 the great folk singer and folk song composer Lead Belly, who had done time at Sugar Land. In the years since, many thousands of musicians, singers and listeners have identified with longing for freedom expressed in the lyrics of “The Midnight Special” without ever having spent a day behind bars.

    Source: Folk Song USA, Alan Lomax, Editor, New American Library. Recordings on file by: Lead Belly. Odetta, The Weavers.

    Note from Sarah: Alan Lomax was a close personal friend of Leadbelly’s and his father chronicled much of early black folk music and interviewed Huddie Ledbetter extensively.


    Comment by Sarah — 5/17/2005 @ 9:55 pm

  3. The cheap guns you were thinking of are called Saturday night specials. cms

    Comment by cms — 11/16/2005 @ 9:12 pm

  4. thanks for giving me the history of the legendary train that shined its light on those who would be released. I listened to this song for 10 years (the Belafonte version), thinking of a prisoner I know so well, and waiting for the Midnight Special to shine its light on him. And then, on 5 November 2005, I got a phone call from him. He was free, after all those years in prison. The call came at five minutes past midnight. It was the Midnight Special, which finally shined its light on him.

    Comment by Donna Evleth — 11/21/2005 @ 3:08 pm

  5. Though the song is about a train shining light on prison inmates, it very clearly is meant to invoke the idea of being saved by God. As recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival, it has the feel of an old hymn or slave spiritual. It sounds like Leadbelly was comparing the light that promised freedom to the light of spiritual salvation. Very effective.

    Thanks very much for the research. I was just listening to the song (by CCR) and wanted to get the answer once and for all, and thanks to you all (and Google) I have it.

    Comment by Eric Laine — 2/20/2006 @ 9:55 pm

  6. I used to work at the airport that shared the land with that old prison farm in Sugar Land, TX. Many acres are gone now, but the building that existed there until about 5 years ago were simply frozen in time. And the tracks did run east/west right between the old ranch houses and the where the blocks currently sit.

    Thanks for the research on a timeless tune.

    Comment by jim — 5/31/2006 @ 3:29 pm

  7. I actually heard a different story about this song.

    I am lead to believe this song is a slave song and was about the stars. Apparently there was a slave group that used the stars as navigation and as rhythmic people they made a great song. Then addapted into the prison songs. That is just the story I heard by an old man and have no idea of any truth. But a good story I thought.

    Comment by Mitch — 3/13/2008 @ 1:13 am

  8. The “light” reference is intentional ambiguous. It’s a song sung from the perspective of a prisoner. He wants to get out of prison. He hears the train going by in the distance. Obviously, because he’s in his cell he can’t see the train. He wants to get out of prison. The reference to the light shining on him is ridiculous, unless you view the light as something else. It could be something divine. Perhaps Ms. Rosie will petition the warden to get him out of prison. More likely, he hates being in prison so much, his situation his hopeless and he’d rather be run over by the train, hence the light shinin on him, and die.

    Comment by Rick — 3/11/2009 @ 1:37 pm

  9. In the Sugarland prison mythology, the light doesn’t have to shine on the man himself but into his cell. Shine on me (possible) sounds better than shine in my cell. Note also the trail lights revolved or rolled around as it went forward or otherwise it would hit the same cell every time. Last: the composer is a well known black folk singer: Huddie William Ledbetter (January 1888 – December 6, 1949) known as Leadbelly. He is one of the greatest, along with the great Woody Guthrie. Leadbelly indeed was in prison all too often: he ate, drank, and misbehaved alot. In prison, he composed songs and entertained the warden and got off doing short good time. He wrote also Good Night Irene. So don’t think of some vague folk origin; think of Leadbelly’s genius. He and Woody were the heros of the next generations, like Dylan. These “facts” are from memory but sourced from scholarly books and liner notes.


    Comment by Sam — 7/9/2009 @ 2:57 pm

  10. I forgot to add that the Houston lyrics do refer to Houston Texas; to a real Sugar land sheriff (though the name changes). The connection between Houston and Sugar Land is that Sugar Land, named for its sugar cane crops and sugar mill (the company, Imperial Sugar, still exists), had the famous prison. The prisoners did some work for the mill. Hence, some lyrics say (instead of penitentiary) say ” you’re refinery bound.” Sugar refineries were hard & dangerous work. Today Sugar Land is a wonderful suburb of Houston. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is l considered one of the best integrated & prosperous communities, with peacefully integrated workers and prosperous millionaires (like pro ball players) living side by side. The mill is closed and the fields are mostly gone. In their place is an idyllic community. OK, sometimes they have to trap an alligator preying in a canal near a playground.

    Comment by Sam — 7/9/2009 @ 3:19 pm

  11. Sorry: I meant a real town called Sugar Land (Texas) and to a real Houston sheriff. The arrest would be in Houston, the prison in Sugar Land. The rail road would probably be the Southern Pacific, which had freight and also hauled Pullman Cars for passengers. I don’t know whether the Midnight Special (the prisoners’ name) was the passenger-carrying Sunset Limited, or not. It could have been a strictly freight train. If it carried passengers, their freely moving on down the line to California would be more poignant. Johnny Cash in Fulsome Prison Blues refers to this contrast of free passengers on a train and the prisoner in his cell. Sorry again for confusing wording in missive # 2. (This is #3 and I promise the last! apparently I had stored up more “facts” (I think) about that song than I realized.

    Comment by Sam — 7/9/2009 @ 3:34 pm

  12. Yes. This song is about the prison at Surgar Land, Texas and the train coming from Houston. As I recall the lyrics of one verse are, “If you ever go to Houston, then you better walk right, you better not gamble, and you better not fight, Brocker will arrest you and Henry will take you down, and the judge will send you, Sugarland Bound”. (Yes the names of the arresting officers change and there is also one reference to a Judge’s name.)

    Comment by jim ledford — 6/11/2010 @ 8:12 am

  13. Let me clear this myth up for all you once and for all!! The light from the train referred to in the song “Midnight Special”, was from a train that went by the prison work farm late at night. The light from the train did not enter the prison or any cell, instead from the perspective of the prisoners seeing out the bared windows at night. They could see the people who waited for the train on the platform the light would illuminate them, and from time to time when a prisoner from the work farm was released they would stand where the other prisoners could see them waiting for the train they would raise their hands in happiness and joy that it was their time to leave the dammed work farm. The prisoners would wake up and look out at night when someone they knew had been released earlier that day since that was only time the train came by the secluded work farm. They would look in the direction of the prison to give encouragement to the fellow inmates who where still waiting, for their freedom/salvation since it was among the “saved” prisoners “only” that this spiritual hymn formed. The dammed where not included in the ritual. Therefore never see the light:) Calvinistic I know but true!! KK K223k@hotmail.com

    Comment by Kenneth J, Kramer — 9/4/2010 @ 2:37 pm

  14. A version of the song was sung by Harry Dean Stanton (who you may recognize as the father in Pretty In Pink) portraying one of the prisoners in the movie Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman in 1967.

    Comment by Roger — 2/19/2011 @ 3:29 pm

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