Cover Roundup: “Midnight Special”

You know what’s a fantastic song?

“Midnight Special.”

I wrote recently about seeing Willie Watson, and that night he performed his version of the traditional folk song. It’s also on his debut (solo) album Folk Singer Vol. 1. Now, I recognized that song as a CCR song, and hey – that’s happened before on Cover Roundup. So, of course, when I looked it up, it was then I learned it’s older, by far, than CCR. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a Cover Roundup!

If you are interested in the history of the song, you can start over on Wikipedia, but here’s a short recap. There’s no known author of the song, but most attribute its origins to prisoners in the South. Some of its lyrics appeared for the first time in a recorded song in 1905, and by 1927 there were two versions of the lyrics published in Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag. I don’t know if it’s necessarily right to label different versions of a traditional song as covers, but I’m doing it anyway.

Now the challenge here is finding versions that are noticeably different from each other. I’ve done what I can!

The first recorded version to gain a lot of popularity was Lead Belly’s which was recorded in the 1930s. His version is of course – LEGIT. Lead Belly honed his musical style while playing in Shreveport’s red-light district, once escaped from a chain-gang, and murdered a man. (His life was much more than that, and he was a great contributor to American music, but who better to perform this song?)

Most people like to note that Harry Belafonte’s version is “important” because Bob Dylan appears on it as a session player (that’s him on the harmonica). This is the first recorded gig Dylan ever had, and hey, the harmonica on this song is pretty great. But who even cares. Let’s talk about how Harry changes up the vocal delivery of this song, smooth and sometimes growly. Musically, this version has Belafonte’s island grooves but Dylan’s harmonica grounds it in American folk. This is what makes a cover fantastic in my mind – a new direction, but the same starting point.

I was born in 1985. Little Richard was a bit of a joke by the time I was aware of him – the squeals and oos and the eyes and the sequins. But damn, does his version knock my socks off. It’s sad that for so long I only thought of his gimmicks because he truly had crazy talent. He uses his squeals to emulate a train, the tempo is FAST, and his backup singers change EVERYTHING. This song is the train. Shine the light on me!

Most people, like myself, probably know this as a CCR song, and they made it into a perfectly bluesy 1970s rock song. But I also love how the band joins in on the chorus vocals. Like a chain gang might? My soft spot for CCR will abide forever so this may still be my favorite version. I can’t listen to it without thinking of riding in my dad’s truck singing it together.

Okay. So. ABBA covered this song. And I have no big problem with ABBA, but I don’t like when a cover strips everything from the history of the song. I don’t know what the hell they are doing here making this a disco dance song. But I’m including it because it’s a rare case when women take the lead vocals and because it’s so incredibly different. But also because of their outfits.

Let’s cleanse our palate with the aforementioned Willie Watson, a full-circle back to the spirit of Lead Belly’s version. He’s accompanied by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings here. In other words…

I am, however, incredibly disappointed to find there are no real notable female versions of this song. So, I end this Cover Roundup with a wish list:

  1. Emmylou Harris, because OBVIOUSLY.
  2. Gladys Knight and The Pips, circa 1974, because TRAINS.
  3. First Aid Kit because THIS. Also because if Swedish women are going to cover this song, it should be them. They could do it so hot and low-key.

Did I miss a great cover? What’s your favorite? Who SHOULD sing this? Comment below!

Read more from Amanda here and on Twitter: @aaahmanda.