‘Well, You Wake Up In The Morning . . .’

Originally posted September 11, 2007

As I wandered through the mp3 collection in search of a cover version to share today, I came across multiple version of the folk song “Midnight Special.” The earliest recorded version I have is by Leadbelly (born Huddie Ledbetter), evidently recorded at Louisiana’s Angola Prison in 1933 by folklorist Alan Lomax.

I’ve heard for years that Leadbelly wrote the song, but Wikipedia says otherwise, noting that the earliest known recording of the song was by bluesman Sam Collins. It’s certain, however, that Leadbelly popularized the song in his recordings and performances following his release from prison in 1934. The author of “Goodnight Irene,” “Cotton Fields,” and many other folk standards, Leadbelly also made popular a vast number of songs from other sources. One of the giants of American music, he died in 1949.

A tribute to Leadbelly provided one of the better versions of “Midnight Special” I have in my collection. It’s by Long John Baldry and comes from his 2001 CD entitled Remembering Leadbelly.

Other versions of the song of note are those by Harry Belafonte (worth seeking out as the first paid recording session by Bob Dylan, who played harmonica behind Belafonte’s vocal); by Creedence Clearwater Revival, from its Willy & the Poor Boys album; by Johnny Rivers, whose version went to No. 20 in 1965; and by Big Joe Turner, whose Kansas City-ish “Midnight Special Train” was released in 1957.

But the version I decided to share today is by Van Morrison, released a few years ago on a CD entitled The Early Years. It almost certainly comes from 1967, as a longer version of what sounds to be the same performance is on that year’s Blowin’ Your Mind album. It’s a gritty take on the standard, with some nice blues harp work in front of an R&B chorus.

Van Morrison – “Midnight Special” [1967 or 1968]

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