Song 83 – Rock Island Line

SONG: Rock Island Line

ARTIST: Lonnie Donegan

YEAR: 1956

Listen to it here: 


The earliest known version of this song was written in 1929 by Clarence Wilson, a member of the Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet. The lyrics in this early version are quite different from the lyrics of the more popular versions of this song. The first audio recording was made by a folklorist and musicologist at the Tucker Arkansas prison farm in 1934. This recording also featured Lead Belly and the lyrics seem to bridge the original version and the “classic” version. 

Lonnie Donegan’s recording, which is the one we’re listening to today, was recorded in late 1955 and signalled the start of the UK skiffle craze. What the heck is skiffle? It’s a type of folk pop music that employs parts of blues, folk, jazz, and rock and is usually played on homemade instruments. This recording just uses voice accompanied by acoustic guitar, washtub bass, and washboard rhythm. 


Anthony James Donegan was born in 1931 in Glasgow, Scotland. His father was a professional violinist. Growing up in the early 1940s, Donegan listened to a lot of swing music, and became interested in the guitar. He then drifted towards country and western records. At age 14 he bought his first guitar and by the time he was 20 he was gigging in bars around London. In 1952, after he’d finished his stint of National Service, he formed the Tony Donegan Jazzband which played around London. 

Donegan toured around London with a washboard, tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar. His act became increasingly popular, which led to him landing a recording session for Rock Island Line. This was the first debut record to ever go gold in the UK and is still noted by many artists as an inspiration of theirs, partially because of the thrifty ingenuity of using found instruments in post-war England. Though the skiffle style didn’t really catch on as much in the US, Donegan still went on to a few more big hits. 


His band opened for blues musician Lonnie Johnson at the Royal Festival Hall and Donegan adopted his first name in tribute. 


What is this song.  Is this a train song?  I’ve never heard of Lonnie Donegan, maybe for good reason?  It sounds like a British person doing his impression of a generic American South accent, with varying levels of success.  He sounds like a lighter voiced Boomhauer.  I like the slow intro of the song and thought it sounded interesting, where we’re naming livestock, albeit with thin, tinny guitar.  Then the song picked up and as the messy sound increased, my interest in the song decreased.  He’s not a bad singer, I just don’t think the song was his to sing.


I think I can safely say that I haven’t heard of Lonnie Donegan, and have never heard this song before. The story-telling and singing element is kind of interesting, but I must say, Donegan’s voice is super interesting and sounds like he could have just as easily sung in a Celtic band. His growls and accentuations are what is most interesting to me. Also, the whole skiffle feel is really cool. This is the most tasteful washboard percussion I’ve heard, and the guitar sound is interesting. All in all, I was expecting novelty out the wazoo, but I really like this! Nicely done, Lonnie!

Average mark out of 10:

Holly: 7/10

Kelly: 5.5/10

Other notable versions of this song:

Johnny Cash:

A recording that came before Donegan’s: Leadbelly:

Listen with us!

Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: