Date: Tue, 16 Jun 1998 07:14:28 -0500
From: Mike Salovesh
Subject: Re: "the man" in WSVE

"The Midnight Special" was written by Hudie Ledbetter, known as
Leadbelly. Leadbelly recorded the words Bob Haas partly recalls
in two different versions:

Well it's on one table,
knife and fork and pan ...

... but if you say anything about it,
you're in trouble with The Man.

... but if you say anything about it,
havin' trouble with The Man.

When Leadbelly sang it, you could almost hear the capital letters.

"The Midnight Special" was written in, and about, a Texas prison.
As Leadbelly told the story, if the midnight special train passing
the prison shone its light on a prisoner, that prisoner would go

The story was at least partly true. Leadbelly recorded "The
Midnight Special" while in prison on a very long sentence.
(He was in for either murder or manslaughter.) The recording
was made for the Library of Congress; I think the recorders
were John and/or Alan Lomax. Whoever made the recordings
started a campaign that eventually led the Governor of Texas
(which one? when? I don't know!) to commute Leadbelly's
sentence and set him free.

-- mike salovesh
anthropology department
northern illinois university PEACE !!!

P.S.: The gaps in this report are there because I'm writing
this out of my memories of singing with Leadbelly on a gig in
1948, and from hearing Al Lomax retell the prison story many
times. Yeah, I know, I could look it up. But Barry is the
guy who's working on songs from the 20s and 30s just now. I
don't want to invade his turf.

Bob Haas wrote:
> In keeping with Ron's ideas, I seem to remember a line from the old song, "The
> Midnight Special" that mentions working "for the man," or something to that
> effect. I know the song from CCR's cover, but it's been around a long time. I'm
> pretty certain Jimmy Rogers did it a long while back, as well as many R&B
> artists. In any case, it's certainly would point to southern origins for the
> term. That is, of course, if I'm remembering correctly. Any help?
> Ron Butters wrote:
> > I am familiar with the term THE MAN from working-class white (and black)
> > speakers in the South (particularly in Wilmington, NC), who in the early 1970s
> > (and probably earlier) used the phrase to indicate what I would have indicated
> > by THE BOSS. For example, if someone came to a job site looking for work, he
> > might ask, "Who is the man?"
> >
> > I'm not questioning the fact that the spread of THE MAN as a recent vogue
> > term stems from AAVE, but I think it most likely that it originated in the
> > South in relationship to the general phrase BOSS MAN, rather than (as an
> > earlier writer suggested) specifically in AAVE as a term women used for their
> > husbands and bouyfriends.
> --
> Bob Haas
> University of North Carolina at Greensboro
> "No matter where you go, there you are."