—— folk family and jam

Midnight special

Well you wake up in the morning;  When the dingdong ring
You go marchin' to the table, you see the same dam' thing.
Knife and fork is on the table, nothin' in my pan,
You say a word about it - you're in trouble with the man.
Let the midnight special shine a light on me,
Let the midnight special shine an everlovin' light on me

Well you ever go to Houston - well you'd better walk straight
And you'd better not stagger, and you'd better not fight
'Cos the sherriff come and get you, he'll put you in that pan
You can bet your bottom dollar, you're penitentiary bound.

Well yonder comes Missie Rosie - How in the world do you know
Well I can see that it's Miss Rosie by the dress she wo'
Umberella on her shoulder, piece of paper in her han'
She's goin' to the guv'nor, Let loose my man

And yonder's Doctor Benson, and how do I know
Well he come to my cell just about an hour ago.
But there ain't no livin' doctor travellin' through this land
That can cure the fever of a jailhouse man

From  Lonnie Donegan (prominent figure in those formative years, the 60's) recorded it.  I probably got it from him - indirectly - via New Horizon and Steve and Dave. 

Another prison song of course; hard times in prison; hard times being black.
The legend is that if the light from the midnight special (a train) shone through the bars of your prison cell and on to a prisoner - that was a sign that the prisoner would be released.
I like it; a warning - and Missie Rosie with her umberella, as a last lost hope.

Personally I can't see actual prison inmates believing this sort of stuff; the number of prison cells where a light from the railway might shine must be strictly limited.  If they really did sing it, I would guess that the midnight special is a euphemism for death - the only release they could hope for.  But probably it's just another of the million songs about (slightly romanticised) sufferings in prisons - sung and written by people who have never been there.
But who knows?

The last verse has two possible versions. 
Dr Benson; there ain't no living doctor - or there ain't no other livin' doctor 
The first version: a doctor has no cure for being a prisoner.
The second version: Dr Benson is a code word for drugs: he brings relief.

Leadbelly sang it for the Lomaxes (John and Alan Lomax, the folk heritage collectors), and they mistakenly attributed it to Leadbelly.  He didn't object, not loud enough to be heard.  However there are other versions extant before he ever started playing it.  In print from 1905, on record from 1926.  So it started somewhere else.  Difficult to know where - and perhaps the song is as much Leadbelly's as anyone else's.  His first recording of it was while he was an inmate in Angola prison (1934).
Most versions place the song around Houston; one version identifies the train as the Illionois Central, travelling through Mississippi; that version was recorded from an inmate in Mississippi prison.
Loads of well-known artists have recorded it - Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee; Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, Mungo Jerry.  But also Van Morrison, ABBA, Spencer Davis group, Clapton, McCartney