“Midnight Special” is a traditional folk song thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South. The song refers to the passenger train Midnight Special and its “ever-loving light” (sometimes “ever-living light”):
Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me
John and Alan Lomax, in their book, Best Loved American Folk Songs, told a credible story identifying the Midnight Special as a train from Houston shining its light into a cell in the Sugar Land Prison. They also describe Ledbetter’s version as “the Negro jailbird’s ballad to match Hard Times Poor Boy. Like so many American folk songs, its hero is not a man but a train.” The light of the train is seen as the light of salvation, the train which could take them away from the prison walls. It is highly reminiscent of the imagery of such gospel songs as Let the Light from your Lighthouse Shine on Me. Carl Sandburg had a different view. He believed the subject of the song would rather be run over by a train than spend more time in jail.