I’m putting up some  collections of folk tunes I’ve been working on for a while – they’re going up as “pages” rather than posts – but I think this one deserves its own actual post, not only because hearing “Railroad Bill” being picked on the guitar is one of my earliest memories, but also because my great-grandmother, who spent most of her life in Lowndes County, AL, wrote about Railroad Bill in her memoirs.  She writes,

Railroad Bill was a young black man that could board a train without being seen until he stepped out of nowhere and robbed the baggage coach and sometimes the passengers of the train and then vanish completely. It was said that he was invisible. Posses would be close on his track and all at once they would lose him. Even the blood hounds could not track him down.

This was in the gay nineties when the young people were happy and singing “After the Ball,” “Two Little Girls in Blue,” and other popular songs of the day. Then someone would ride up and announce that Railroad Bill had just robbed the North or South bound train and had vanished with the loot. Everyone began trembling and wondering if he would come by and harm them. Railroad Bill had become notorious.

I was a small child about 8 or 10 years old and hung around Papa’s store and post office. Men would gather from miles around to meet the mail which was due at eleven o’clock from Claiborne by way of Perdue Hill and Monroeville, from Beuna Vista by way of Burnt Corn and from Evergreen by way of Belleville. The heaviest mail came from Evergreen as the only railroad came through there. It was interesting to hear the news from surrounding communities, and every week or so, the mail carrier would come with the news that Railroad Bill had thrown loot off the train. One time it was a box of meal that weighed a hundred pounds, other times it would be a barrel of sugar, a barrel of flour or other goods. At times someone would get a glimpse of Bill as he dropped from the moving train.

Life was brutally harsh for settlers and outlaws alike, and after many such mysterious crimes committed by Railroad Bill from Mobile to Montgomery, a reward was offered for him “dead or alive.”

A posse was gathered in a store to make plans for tracking Bill down. While they were in the front of the store talking over their plans one man who was late came in the back door with his pass key. There sat Railroad Bill on a barrel listening to the men making the plans for his capture. He failed to hear the man enter, and the man quickly drew his gun and shot Railroad Bill. The railroad company had him embalmed and put him on the train, on a day announced and stopped at every station between Mobile and Montgomery and charged $.25 for each person to look at him. Two of my brothers went to see him.

Railroad Bill was so notorious at that time that a song was written about him, but all I can remember of the song, the closing sentence which said: “and that was the last of Railroad Bill.”

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Crooked Still – Railroad Bill

Doc Watson and David Holt at Merlefest ’08 – Railroad Bill

some guy on youtube picking Railroad Bill, Freight Train, Make Me a Pallet

The Mudcat Cafe discussion on Railroad Bill (if you are into folk tales and folk music and you don’t know this site, go there NOW)

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page links to Shule AgraSt James Hospital, the Trooper and the Maid, Omie Wise

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