Lyrics Analysis: Shorty George

Leadbelly was the author of numerous blues and folk songs which are still popular. As a substantial amount of songs, written at the early ages of blues and folk emergence, Leadbelly's works also frequently include definitions which need further clarification. The song "Shorty George" is good example of such need. Although recording date of the song is not known, it is obvious it should happen after 1925 since it is widely known that Leadbelly was incarcerated in 1918 and served seven years in Sugar Land, Texas. Title of the song, "Shorty George", refers to train that took convicts (and visitors) to and from the prison and this fact is more or less known, but from Lornell and Wolfe we further understand that it was a short train that ran out of the farm in Houston to the core of the penitentiary, called Imperial State Prison Farm - the place where Leadbelly served his seven year sentence and probably heard name Shorty George.

Another reference considers train again. "Well my baby caught the Katy" - this is how third verse begins. We understand from Wiki article following: "The Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad (reporting mark MKT) was incorporated May 23, 1870. In its earliest days the MKT was commonly referred to as "the K-T", which was its stock exchange symbol; this common designation soon evolved into "the Katy"." The railroad grew and linked Kansas City, Missouri with Galveston, Texas (remember this place). In the same verse Leadbelly says he caught the Santa Fee and this is one more reference to railroad. (by the way, Mance Lipscomb also refers to both Katy and Santa Fee in his song "Black Gal" from the album Pure! Texas Country Blues) Florida state law chapter 3653, approved February 12, 1885, incorporated the Santa Fee and St. Johns Railway Company. It was a short line in Florida connecting a point near the head of navigation of the Santa Fee river and St. Johns River (probably at Jacksonville). This verse ends with words: "Well, you can't quit me, baby, can't you see". It's quite interesting. If girl was in Texas (she caught the Katy) and the author was in Florida, they could not easily meet each other unless assumption that Santa Fee was somehow connected to bigger railroad running west from Florida through Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana to Texas. Next verse gives some proof of it. 

Galveston, Texas where Leadbelly finishes his trip was one of the headquarters of Malory S.S. Line, a steamship company referred in the song as simply Malory Line. And same Galveston is the place where Katy railway ended/started. Now it’s more clear why "she could not quit him".

The last verse defines Dallas as desirable place for the author and when he gets back there (so, we could suggest everything started from Dallas; not the trip but the whole story much earlier than trip) he would tell what a "burning hell" Fort Bend Bottom is. This piece needs some clarification as well. Fort Bend is a county in Texas covering Sugar Land. This gives me pretext to suggest that Fort Bend Bottom refers to Imperial State Prison Farm.

Shorty George II

Well-a Shorty George, he ain't no friend of mine
Well-a Shorty George, he ain't no friend of mine
He's taken all the women and left the men behind.

Well-a Shorty George, he done been here and gone
Yes, Shorty George, he done been here and gone
Lord he left many a poor man a great long way from home.

Well my baby caught the Katy, I caught the Santa Fee
Well she caught the Katy, I caught the Santa Fee
Well, you can't quit me, baby, can't you see.

Well I went to Galveston, work on the Mallory Line
Went to Galveston, Lord on the Mallory Line
Babe you can't quit me, ain't no use tryin'.

Shorty George, travelin' through the land
Shorty George, he's travelin' through the land
Always looking to pick some woman's poor man.

When I get back to Dallas, I'm gonna walk and tell
When I get back to Dallas, gonna walk and tell
That the Fort Bend Bottom is a burning hell.