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Great Vintage Blues #10: Lead Belly

I do take requests when it comes to this feature, in no small part because suggestions from you guys have helped me find (and sometimes introduced me to) material worth sharing with everybody. I think there's one name that's been called out more than anyone else: Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly.

Lead Belly (you'll often see the nickname as one word, but since he preferred to spell it as two words I'll follow that) was more than just a blues musician, he was a living library of all kinds of music—work songs, hollers, children's play songs, pretty much anything he ran across. Though blues was a large part of what Lead Belly did, you really have to use the wider label "folk" to describe him because only the broadest label even begins to fit. In his later career he played for all kinds of audiences, from college campuses to small children. (My wife, who used to be a schoolteacher, assures me that Lead Belly is still a big hit among the 3-7 age bracket.) Discovered by folk archivists John and Alan Lomax in jail in the mid-1930s, he became a touchstone for the burgeoning folk movement, which hailed him as a perfect example of the "authentic" music they were trying to preserve and revive, and helped make him a hugely influential force in bringing black music into white culture. His records were seminal influences on people like Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and it didn't hurt that Pete Seeger wrote an instructional book on playing the guitar that used Lead Belly as the example neophytes should emulate. He's been revived continuously over the years with covers of his songs sparking new interest, particularly by The Weavers, who released a hit version of "Goodnight Irene" just after his death, later by CCR ("The Midnight Special") and in the 1990s by Mark Lanegan and Kurt Cobain, who remade Lead Belly's murder ballad "In The Pines" as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" on Lanegan's The Winding Sheet and Nirvana's Unplugged album.

Bon in Louisiana in 1888, Ledbetter grew up there and in east Texas, and left home in his early teens to work as a farmhand and part-time musician in the Dallas area. Like Lightnin' Hopkins (featured here last week), Ledbetter met and befriended the older, more experienced guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, picking up knowledge in exchange for guiding Jefferson around town; the two played together for years. Director Gordon Parks (most famous for Shaft) made a biographical film about him in 1976 simply titled Leadbelly. I haven't seen the whole thing, but here's a clip in which Jefferson and Ledbetter meet for the first time; I'm guessing this is highly fictionalized. The two songs here are "Rock Island Line" and "Silver City Bound."

Obviously one of the things Parks was trying to get across there was Ledbetter's temper and propensity for violence and general trouble-making. Later in his life he settled down quite a bit, but as a young man he involved himself with what this online biography memorably calls "truculent Dallas prostitutes," and received a deep scar across his neck from having his throat cut in a bar fight. He spent several long stretches in prison, including a 30-year sentence for murder and another for attempted murder. Both times, he charmed his way into a pardon by singing to the warden—a story embellished by legend, but true nonetheless. All that stuff is an inescapable part of his legend, and, it has to be said, gave him a certain dangerous appeal that was part of why Caucasians were fascinated by him.

In last week's post, commenter "bee man" noted that "I'd almost say Leadbelly is too big a subject for a blog post." I'd say that's true, both in terms of discussing his importance as an artist and in trying to accurately summarize the many contentious issues that surround him. His relationship with the Lomaxes was fraught with dispute and accusations on both sides, and it's hard to untangle their championing of his music with their exploitation of it, and of the man himself. There's also an uncomfortable racial component to the often condescending way Ledbetter was treated by the Lomaxes and others (including Life magazine, which ran an article on him with the unfortunate title "Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel") and to the folk movement's valuation of older, supposedly more "authentic" black culture over, say, jazz made by black artists like Cab Calloway—and while I have an interest in the music, I'm frankly not enough of a scholar of those times to feel on solid ground discussing those areas. Let's just enjoy some music.

There's a wealth of Lead Belly music available—his 1934-43 Library Of Congress archives are collected on six CDs; Smithsonian/Folkways has a great three-disc set of his 1941-47 recordings, and a couple other discs including the excellent Lead Belly Sings For Children. But surprisingly, there's only one known film where you can actually see him perform. I've linked to it below, but just to set it up: This is really more along the lines of a music video than a live recording. The film was put together by Pete Seeger out of silent footage of Ledbetter performing six songs filmed in California in 1945 during an abortive attempt to start a movie career. Seeger got ahold of the material 20 years later, and, as quoted in the book The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly, it was "pretty amateurish. I think that he recorded Leadbelly in a studio the day before, then he played the record back while Leadbelly moved his hands and lips in synch with the record. He'd taken a few seconds from one direction and a few seconds from another direction, which is the only reason I was able to edit it. I spent three weeks with a moveiola, up in my barn, snipping one frame off here and one frame off there and juggling things around. I was able to synch up three songs: 'Grey Goose,' 'Take This Hammer,' and 'Pick A Bale Of Cotton.'" He also added an instrumental version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" at the beginning.

In the absence of Lead Belly singing his signature "Goodnight Irene," here's the Weavers c. 1949:

And Nirvana's MTV Unplugged version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"

And what the hell, here's a live version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Midnight Special."


Here's Lead Belly singing "Black Betty," backed with video of astronauts working on the space shuttle for no apparent reason:


#1: Sister Rosetta

#2: Skip James

#3: Bukka White

#4: Howlin' Wolf

#5: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

#6: Bessie Smith (and Bo Diddley)

#7: Furry Lewis

#8: Son House

#9: Lightnin' Hopkins