Railroad Bill

TITLE: Railroad Bill
AUTHOR: unknown
CATEGORY: Traditional, Public Domain
KEYWORDSrambling, robbery, crime, death, train
EARLIEST PRINTED OR RECORDED REFERENCE: 1911 (Odum, according to Cohen)
HISTORICAL REFERENCES: There is a legend in south Alabama, associated with the spirit of a man known as, “Railroad Bill”. This story, from slave cultures, during the post-Civil War era, during the reconstruction of the South, documents a “Robin Hood” type character who stole from food trains and sold the items to poor, rural southern families for less than they could buy them in general stores. His ghost is still roaming the L&N Railroad tracks to this very day. 

The body of this man was Bill McCoy, according to Brewton, Alabama townspeople. Leaving the actual identity of Railroad Bill a mystery to this day. (Constable J.L. McGowan pictured here with the rifle that allegedly killed Railroad Bill)
The body of this man was Bill McCoy, according to Brewton, Alabama townspeople. Leaving the actual identity of Railroad Bill a mystery to this day. (Constable J.L. McGowan pictured here with the rifle that allegedly killed Railroad Bill)

The Louisville to Nashville Railroad was the catalyst that literally drove Railroad Bill from destination to destination, eluding law enforcement from Alabama to Florida for exactly a year and a day. On March 6, 1895, an armed vagrant was spotted by L&N railroad employees. As they attempted to apprehend the man, believed to be Railroad Bill, the man fired at them and escaped by jumping into a passing box car headed south.

The man believed to be the elusive railroad bandit was identified as Morris Slater, a convict who ran away from a turpentine camp in Bluff Springs, Florida after he murdered an officer. A $500 reward was placed on Bill Slater and bounty hunters from as far away as Texas and Indiana organized to find him and collect the reward.

By September 1895, the bounty for the capture of Railroad Bill grew tremendously to $1,250. On March 7, 1896, at Wards General Store, located in Atmore, Alabama, a group of men positively identified Bill Slater as the bandit and killed him. But people from Brewton, Alabama, who came to see the body, say he was a local man named, Bill McCoy.

His true identity is still very much a mystery but his death served the purpose of satisfying authorities. Railroad Bill was put on public display, his body shipped from Brewton to Montgomery and to Pensacola, Florida. The public paid a meager .25 to view the corpse and he was later buried in an unmarked grave, in an undisclosed location.

The body of this man was Bill McCoy, according to Brewton, Alabama townspeople. Leaving the actual identity of Railroad Bill a mystery to this day. (from Haunted Haven by Faith Serafin)

OTHER TITLES AND VARIATIONS:

  • The Ballad of Railroad Bill
  • Morris Slater
  • Ride On, Railroad Bill

RECORDINGS: (mp3’s available through Amazon.com)

YOUTUBE VIDEO:

YOUTUBE AUDIO: download
LYRIC & CHORD PRO CHART: download
PPT LYRICS FOR THE CLASSROOM: download
BONUS YOUTUBE VIDEO: Garrison Keillor and Pat Donohue

Railroad Bill

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill,
He never worked and never will
He’s gonna ride, ride, ride

Railroad Bill was a mighty bad man,
Shot the light out the brakeman’s hand.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill cut a mighty dash,
Shot MacMillan by a lightnin’ flash.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill,
He never worked and never will
He’s gonna ride, ride, ride

Mrs. MacMillan she whooped and squawled,
‘That’s my husband, for I heard him fall.’
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

I went down on No. 1,
Railroad Bill had just begun.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill,
He never worked and never will
He’s gonna ride, ride, ride

I come back on No. 2,
Railroad Bill had just got through.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

An’ just as I caught ol’ No. 4,
Somebody let fly with a 44.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill,
He never worked and never will
He’s gonna ride, ride, ride

I come back on No. 5
Gonna git him dead or alive.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill was a mighty sport,
Shot all the buttons off the sheriff’s coat.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill,
He never worked and never will
He’s gonna ride, ride, ride

Railroad Bill, goin’ down the hill,
Lightin’ cigars with a five-dollar bill.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill.

Railroad Bill say, before he died,
He would build a railroad for the bums to ride.
They lookin’ for that bad Railroad Bill..

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill,
He never worked and never will
He’s gonna ride, ride, ride

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
  • Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (1952), Volume 3: Folk Songs from North Carolina. Edited by Henry M Beldin and Arthur Palmer Hudson. Duke University Press.

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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