In the afterword to the book Experiences, Robert Rose and Carla Johnson wrote about creating content experiences that have the potential to change the world. It reads a bit like inspirational rhetoric, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re just marketers, right? I thought that. Then I discovered the night content marketing changed the world.
It started during the great railways expansion through the United States in the second half of the 19th century. A network of competing rail lines was spidering across the country, representing both a promise and a threat. Governments and the titans of industry loved them. But smaller industries and communities faced extinction because of them.
For example, when Illinois’ Rock Island system reached the Mississippi River, the bridge they built was destroyed by local steamboat companies, who also took the railway to court to stop its reconstruction.
But you can’t stop progress. Steamboats went the way of horses and carts, and by the 1920s, the railroad business was booming. The Rock Island line was particularly successful. The line employed nearly 3000 people in Arkansas, 450 of whom worked in the Biddle Street Shops, which were the central freight yard.
They also had high costs and needed to grow constantly and quickly. They had 44 daily passenger trains to fill and 390 monthly freight trains. Competition for both freight and passengers was fierce.
The content marketing plan Rock Island created
Like many companies have over the years, the Rock Island line came up with an integrated marketing strategy to deal with this. Back then, of course, it wasn’t called content marketing. But their plan would look familiar to many content marketers today. It included a monthly company magazine (called the Rock Island Line magazine), internal and external events, and what they called “booster clubs”.
Booster clubs comprised staff members who performed in events in their own communities. The performances included songs or poetry written by employees about the Rock Island Line. Bottom-of-the-funnel content, if you like.
Examples of booster clubs included shop bands, a 442-piece marching group, a glee club, a Mexican Boys Band (led by the Spanish-speaking part of the labour force), the 25-piece Rock Island Railway Orchestra, saw-players, string bands, solo fiddlers, vocal quartets, and poets—all often performing in company events, local churches, on regional radio, and sometimes made their own commercially released recordings.
The booster clubs were also very much a marketing initiative. In Stephen Wade’s book The Beautiful Music All Around Us, he quotes the company magazine explaining booster clubs in January 1920. “Boost the Rock Island,” the magazine implored. “Let the patron know we have a good thing and that we believe in it. More friends mean more patrons—more patrons assure greater revenues … the stockholder receives larger dividends and the employee increased salary. Is there anything more reasonable, more honest or more logical than this?”
The evening content marketing changed the world
On the evening of December 3rd, 1929, at the Arch Street Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of the company’s booster clubs— the Biddle Shops Coloured Quartette—performed for the local community.
One of the songs they performed was called “Rock Island Line”. It was written by Clarence Wilson, a member of the club who worked at the Biddle Shops. That song became quite popular in the local African American community. Variations on it were sung, adjusted and remembered by locals.
It didn’t spread beyond Arkansas at that time. There were plenty of other poems and songs that shared the company name too. There was no particular reason why this particular song would be remembered. But a widowed, obsessive folklorist and his driver—a convicted murderer fresh out of prison—were about to change all that.
The ‘discovery’ of Rock Island Line.
Fast forward five years. Writer and folklorist John Lomax is about to set off on his first journey with Huddie Ledbetter (also known as the hugely influential singer/songwriter Leadbelly).
Lomax had lost his job at a bank during the Great Depression, and his wife had recently died. He had two school-aged children to support. His primary source of income was a small grant he had received from the Library of Congress to document traditional American songs.
Leadbelly had been released from Angola Prison, Louisiana, six weeks earlier. He had been doing time for stabbing a white man.
He had met Lomax a year earlier when Lomax had gone to Angola to record local folk songs. In August 1934 Leadbelly had done his time but didn’t have much to look forward to. So he wrote to Lomax asking for a job.
This trip with Lomax was Leadbelly’s shot at redemption. In September of 1934, the two men headed out to Little Rock to visit the prisons so they could record authentic folk music.
At the state prison in Tucker, Arkansas, they recorded prisoners singing “Rock Island Line”. It was clearly the same song, although had become a little more gospel-tinged than the original ‘booster’ song. Which made sense, as its popularity had spread virally in black churches in the previous five years.
The first hit
Leadbelly wasn’t just a driver. He was also a seasoned performer. Legend has it his singing and guitar playing had gotten him out of prison once before. Lomax appreciated him because of his vast repertoire of traditional songs. Leadbelly would sometimes adjust these classic songs when he couldn’t remember the lyrics.
He remembered “Rock Island Line” three years later, in a recording session with Lomax. He adjusted a few of the lyrics, and misremembered a few others, but recorded his own version of that tune in June 1937.
Leadbelly’s recordings were classified as ‘race records’. They weren’t a big hit with urban audiences but did generate some interest among political activists and some intellectuals at the time.
Crossing the Atlantic
It was a record of Leadbelly’s version of “Rock Island Line” that ended up in the UK after World War 2. US servicemen stationed in London and elsewhere in the UK brought their records with them, then sold them in second-hand stores. Young British kids, living in gray, poverty-stricken, post-war Britain, snapped up these records. They were so much more ‘real’ than the very proper big band swing that dominated the radio.
A young Scottish wannabe jazz musician called Lonnie Donegan picked up a copy of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line”, and taught himself a very basic arrangement of it (you can see a clip of him playing it on You Tube a few years later). The song became a big hit in Britain in 1956.
Donegan’s manager told the local music press this style of music was called “skiffle”. The manager had read that the skiffle was another word for a party in parts of America’s deep south. But it had never been used to describe a type of music before.
A white man sings the blues
British audiences were familiar with blues music. But they associated it with African American singers. Donegan’s manager though UK audiences would laugh them off stage if he said Lonnie was playing the blues. So when asked, he said “Rock Island Line” was skiffle music.
Donegan’s version of the song hit the top of the UK music charts and stayed in the Top 20 for more than six months. When it came out in the US, where it reached number 9 on the charts.
It succeeded for two reasons. It was catchy, but Donegan also invited fans to try it themselves. He encouraged the creation of “skiffle clubs” among his fans, where kids could join up, get a cheap guitar and a songbook, and learn the songs themselves and get out and play them.
The Skiffle craze
Author and singer/songwriter Billy Bragg has recently published a fantastic history of the skiffle movement which explains all this in more detail the whole phenomenon. It’s called Roots, Radicals and Rockers. He identifies the skiffle movement as the first great DIY music movement. It was the precursor to punk in its back-to-basics, anyone-can-be-a-musician philosophy.
Some of the bands and musicians that started out doing skiffle and went on to change the world include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, the Animals, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Bee Gees — in fact, virtually any British musician who was in that first wave of the ‘British Invasion’ in the 1960s. Their combined musical output changed the way popular music sounded, presented and sold around the world. They would, in turn, influence thousands of other musicians.
The spark that started the explosion
Of course, skiffle music—and more specifically, “Rock Island Line”—wasn’t the only factor in those massive changes. But I think you can lay fair claim to say that “Rock Island Line” was the spark that ignited the explosion.
As a piece of content marketing, it didn’t save the Rock Island Line itself (which eventually went broke in the 1970s, for the third and last time). But the content did prove bigger and more resilient than the company itself. I don’t know of any other piece of marketing that can claim that.