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Kurt Cobain’s “favourite performer” was a genius

Everybody knows and loves Nirvana’s iconic performance for MTV Unplugged. Recorded in November 1993, it wasn’t released until 12 months later, shortly after the tragic suicide of frontman Kurt Cobain. A stellar set featuring fan favourites, band favourites, and covers, it is perhaps the most honest performance Nirvana and Cobain ever gave. 

It was one of the few moments in which fans had the opportunity to see Kurt Cobain as an ordinary human, an incredible musician and a joker, all wrapped up in one cardigan-doning formation. 

Whether it be the iconic cover of David Bowie song ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, ‘All Apologies’, the appearance of the Kirkwood brothers from The Meat Puppets, or Cobain’s interactions with the band, one would argue that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged is the definitive entry in the long-running series. It has way more pulp than any of the other episodes, and duly, it ranks at the very top of the long-running series’ episodes.

In terms of the performance painting a candid portrait of Kurt Cobain, one of the most revealing moments came just before the band’s closing song, the cover of Lead Belly’s arrangement of the traditional standard ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’.

Cobain made a revelation before the band performed their last song for the evening. Introducing the track, he said: “This was written by my favourite performer”. Expanding on his point, he corrected himself: “Our favourite performer isn’t it?”, before turning to bassist Krist Novoselic for approval. The frontman then recounted a story that Novoselic attempted to tell the audience, but because the bass player didn’t have a microphone, it was up to Cobain to tell it.

In a now-famous anecdote, Cobain said that earlier in the year that he had been offered Leadbelly’s guitar by a representative from the late folk singer’s estate. Classically, Cobain exaggerated the cost to $500,000 and then jokingly recalled how he asked label boss David Geffen to purchase the guitar for him, but unsurprisingly, Geffen refused. 

Regardless of Cobain’s joking, the praise he showered on Lead Belly is no coincidence. It seems that for musical icons of the 20th century, Lead Belly was one of the main influences, and without his pioneering work, popular culture as we know it would not be the same. This is a testament to the genius of Lead Belly. 

A folk and blues singer, Lead Belly’s influence on the development of modern rock has been more than significant. As a guitarist, he defied the norm and utilised the twelve-string guitar, ripping up the rulebook in the process. Although he is mainly known for his 12-string licks, he was also a multi-instrumentalist, often using traditional instruments such as the accordion. 

Watch Kurt Cobain and Nirvana react to ticket prices in 1993

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In addition to his game-changing music, and covers of traditional standards such as ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘In The Pines’, he was also one of the first musicians to write with a political edge. He wrote about people he read about in the news, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler and The Scottsboro Boys. This was a relatively new thing for the day and set a precedent for all his disciples moving forward.  

The ultimate American songwriter, Bob Dylan, credits Lead Belly for getting him into folk music; the implications of this statement are genuinely colossal. If Bob Dylan didn’t get into folk, you could say goodbye to the vast majority of alternative music. 

In 2016, Dylan was quoted as saying: “Somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Lead Belly record with the song ‘Cotton Fields’ on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.”

Lead Belly’s influence wasn’t contained within the borders of America either. It made its way across the Atlantic and to Britain, which also had its own long-term folk scene. Notably, however, it was through one man where the genius of Lead Belly would go on to inspire a generation, and in turn, create modern popular music as we know it.

In late 1955, Lonnie Donegan released a cover of the American prison song ‘Rock Island Line’, which Lead Belly recorded in 1937. The release of Donegan’s single is hailed as the start of the UK skiffle craze, and we all know what game-changing outfit that particular time produced. George Harrison of The Beatles once explained the impact of Lead Belly: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”

In a 1999 BBC tribute to the folk hero on the 50th anniversary of his death, Van Morrison and Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones also posited that without Lead Belly’s influence, the British musical boom of the ’60s wouldn’t have to come fruition. Morrison concluded: “I’d put my money on that,” with Wood agreeing.

A genius in every sense of the word, it’s no coincidence that Lead Belly’s influence has been felt throughout the timeline of popular music. For Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Kurt Cobain to cite him as a favourite says everything.

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