In 1934 Kelly Pace and inmates of Cummins Prison Farm in Gould, Arkansas were the first to record "Rock Island Line". It was part of the Lomax collection of American folk music. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) recorded the tune a couple of years later and brought it to popularity.

Britain's Lonnie Donegan record was released in 1955 with the Chris Barber Jazz Band and it reached the top ten there.