This American blues/folk song was first recorded in 1934. Folklorist John Lomax made a recording of the inmates in an Arkansas State Prison singing the song. It later became popularized by Lead Belly who recorded his version in 1937. Lonnie Donegan recorded his version in July 1954 with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. It was released as a single in 1955 with John Henry as the B-side. It was his début single and it reached number eight in the UK. It kick started the Skiffle craze. All four Beatles were in Skiffle groups in the 1950s. Both John Lennon and George Harrison owned copies of this single. It was part of the repertoire of both The Quarrymen and The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group.
The George Melly Trio recorded a version of the song in 1951. George Melly was born in Liverpool in 1926. His version of the song was released as a single on Tempo With Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair on the B-side.
The Beatles played the song during the Let It Be sessions in 1969. John Lennon played the song during a jam in 1972 and during the rehearsals for the One to One concert that same year. He also played the song during a jam session with Donovan in 1974. He can also be heard playing the song on a private tape from the late seventies. George Harrison performed the song with Paul Simon during their appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1976. The performance was not aired. Paul McCartney played the song during the rehearsals for MTV Unplugged in 1991. Ringo Starr is the only Beatle who has released the song commercially. He recorded the song for his album Ringo 2012. The Quarrymen recorded the song in 2004 for their album Songs We Remember. Rod Davis recorded a version for his solo album Under The Influence in 2009.
Now Hear This : Rock Island Line – The Quarrymen (2004)
Rock Island Line – Rod Davis (2009)
Rock Island Line – Ringo Starr (2012)