Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line

TITLE: Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line
AUTHOR: Uncle Dave Macon?
CATEGORY: Traditional, Public Domain
KEYWORDS: strike, labor-movement, mining, work, scab, prisoner
EARLIEST PRINTED OR RECORDED REFERENCE: 1925 (collected by Robert W. Gordon; info in Archie Green’s Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs
HISTORICAL REFERENCESThis strike apparently took place in Tennessee in the 1880s, according to notes in Anthology of American Folk Music (1973) Edited by Josh Dunson and Ethel Raim.

"They leased the convicts out."
“They leased the convicts out.”

According to the Traditional Ballad Index, Uncle Dave “Macon’s song seems to have been a rewrite of Chain Gang Special, with the “leased the convicts out” verse tacked onto a song that’s basically the lament of a black convict who’s been sentenced to the chain gang. The racial overtones that Macon softens are clear in the Watts and Wilson recording. But, interestingly, their song is clearly (and sympathetically) told from the black prisoner’s point of view, rare for a white band. 

“Though the song may in fact predate Uncle Dave. He gave it the authentic Uncle Dave spin. . . . Many believe the song to go back to the actual event it describes, the Coal Creek War. . . . Conditions at Coal Creek, Tennessee were terrible, as the deaths in 1902 and 1911 disasters show. Beginning in 1877, the state of Tennessee chose to relieve its shortage of prisons by putting miners to work in the Coal Creek mines. Many died, but the owners didn’t care; convicts were cheap. At the time, there were enough jobs at other mines, so the miners didn’t care much either.

“In 1891, things turned ugly as the owners tried to deny the miners the right to choose their own check-weighmen. The miners struck; they were evicted from their homes and more convicts brought in. The miners peacefully freed the convicts and tried to convince governor “Buck” Buchanan to negotiate.

“Buchanan made the worst possible choice: Force, but not sufficient force. He gathered a small escort of militia, came to Coal Creek, tried to argue with the miners, was refuted, then departed. He left the militia — but they were only three companies, not enough to do any good. The miners forced them to surrender.

“Buchanan sent more and more troops until the miners finally surrendered in October 1892. Buchanan failed re-election, and eventually the convict labor system was abolished.” (These notes from the Traditional Ballad Index were written by Paul J. Stamler and Robert B. Waltz.)

OTHER TITLES AND VARIATIONS:

  • Roll Down the Line

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Roll Down the Line

Way down yonder in Tennesee,
they leased the convicts out
To work in the coal mines,
against free labor South;

Free labor rebelled against it.
To win it took some time.
But while the lease was in effect,
they made ’em rise and shine.

Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.

Early Monday morning
they get you up on time,
Send you down to Lone Rock,
just to look into that mine.

Send you down to Lone Rock,
just to look into that hole
Very next thing the captain says
“You better get your coal.”

Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.

The beans they are half done,
the bread is not so well.
The meat it is all burnt up
and the coffee’s black as heck.

But when you get your task done
and it’s on the floor you fall
Anything you get to eat
it’d taste good, done or raw.

Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.

The bank boss he’s a hard man,
a man you all know well,
And if you don’t get your task done,
he’s gonna give you hallelujah!

Carry you to the stockade,
and it’s on the floor you fall
Very next word you hear
“You better get your coal”

Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Buddy, won’t you roll down the line?
Yonder comes my darlin’, comin down the line.

SOURCES:

  • Folk Song Index: A Comprehensive Guide to the Florence E. Brunnings Collection, Florence E. Brunnings, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London 1981—Amazon Books
  • Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music, Guthrie T. Meade, Jr. with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade, Southern Folklife Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, NC 2002—Amazon Books
  • Green, Archie. Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, University of Illinois Press 1972.
  • Asch, Moses, Josh Dunson and Ethel Raim. Anthology of American Folk Music. Oak Publications, 1973.

SONGBOOKS:

NOTICE: I’m not the best guitar player or vocalist, but no one loves these songs more than I do. The tune and lyrics are in the public domain unless otherwise noted. The recording © copyright 2013 by Stephen Griffith and may be used by permission of the copyright holder. The variation of the song I’m posting is the version I perform and is not exactly replicating the sources cited, but is always in the same song family. If anyone has more details about this song, or believes I’ve stated something in error, please let me know. I’m also open to suggestions to improve the site. Thanks. sgg

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