I wish I was headlight on a northbound trainSome time around 1934, the musicologists and folklorists John and Alan Lomax heard a young African-American woman, in prison for murder, sing a verse from a song they came to call "Woman Blue." The Lomaxes found other verses of "Woman Blue," which may be over a hundred years old, and published the lyrics in their book American Ballads and Folk Songs. The "rider" of the lyrics is either a man or a woman; the term possibly finds its origins in images of mounted prison guards.
I'd shine my light through the cool Colorado rain
I know you rider, gonna miss me when I'm gone
Consigned to obscurity for nearly thirty years, "Woman Blue" was resurrected by the white folk singers of the early Sixties and recorded for the first time, as "I Know You Rider." From the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, the song migrated to rock acts interested in folk music; it eventually became a concert staple for the Grateful Dead. (They performed it more than 500 times.) A few years ago, the Allman Brothers began playing it, and the song with roots in Texas prisons and work farms became a transcendent communal anthem complete with virtuoso guitar solos.
The enigma of "I Know You Rider" is why it lay dormant for so long. It's a great song of dogged hope, the yearning for freedom, and a devoutly wished-for flight to a better world -- feelings and desires that resonate throughout human history. If young people experience that as celebratory, perhaps they are dancing for humanity's unique connection to itself from one generation to the next. Or maybe they're dancing for the sake of dancing. That's okay, too.