If the term ‘troubadour’ be applied to anyone, that anyone should be Huddie William Ledbetter, or better known as Lead Belly. It is unclear exactly when he was born, most documents say 1888 towards the end of January, somewhere between today’s date and the 29th. Predominately known as a blues player, Led Belly dabbled in folk music and gospel music as well. He introduced the American public at large to traditional folk music. In addition to being a multi-instrumentalist (he played the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and the accordion) he was a prolific songwriter and was never short for material to pull from. Learning to play music at a very young age, he was an active musician his entire life, until he died in 1949.
He had an action-packed life which led him to be jailed at least three times, two of those times he sang to the respective governors – an inventive way to ask for his release. He was a fighting man and would usually win; during one of his sentences, he was stabbed in the neck, leaving a menacing scar in place of the wound, only adding to his mystique. His virtuosity was clear as a musician and influenced generations of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Kurt Cobain. His signature sound was created on a twelve-string guitar. He dubbed himself ‘The King of the 12-String.’
His guitar looked unnaturally big; he used heavy strings and low tunings, combined with fingerpicks, he revolutionised a form of fingerpicking, at times fooling the untrained ear to believe that what they were hearing was the sound of a piano. His guitar style and technique would be carried on and popularised by Pete Seeger.
The subjects of his songs ranged from liquor to prison life, to women, to knife fights, to politics to slavery. Some of his earlier material would even make some modern-day gangster rappers blush, for their blatantly dirty and obscene titles, such as: ‘I’m Gonna Hold It In Her While She’s Young And Tender’, ‘What You Goin’ Do With Your Long Tall Daddy’, and ‘Dick Licker’s Holler’. It seemed like he was above the law, as he did go head to head with it on various occasions.
He was jailed multiple times, first in 1915 for carrying a pistol. He later escaped from prison and assumed the false identity of ‘Walter Boyd’. A few months later, he was imprisoned for killing one of his relatives. In 1925 he would do what probably very few if any, could accomplish; he wrote a song for the Governor of Texas asking for his release. This, along with his good behaviour, would allow Lead Belly to succeed.
It would only take another five years until got into another fight and was sent to Louisianna State penitentiary. During these volatile rambling years, Lead Belly travelled throughout the deep south, all the while supporting himself with his music and recording whenever he could. By the 1930s, Lead Belly moved up north to New York City hoping to make a name for himself. Eventually, he would get his own weekly radio show as well as record an album and contribute material to the Library of Congress. In 1939, he would once again stab a man in Manhattan and serve his final jail sentence.
Clearly, Lead Belly had a tumultuous life and career. Throughout it, as evident with the Governor of Texas, many people recognised his talents, and through his music, he was able to influence people and ultimately succeed as a musician. Years later, Kurt Cobain would bring an even larger audience’s attention to the music of Lead Belly by covering an old traditional blues song that Lead Belly had introduced to the public years ago in the 40s, namely ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’.
We took a more in-depth look into Lead Belly’s six definitive songs that truly highlighted his career as memorable and remarkable moments that defined his life as the rambling troubadour that he was, and that also showcased his best songs.
Lead Belly’s six definitive songs:
‘Goodnight, Irene’ (1933)
‘Goodnight, Irene’ is an American folk standard, first recorded by Lead Belly in 1933. The story of the song details the narrator’s frustration with his love, Irene, and their trials and tribulations. The first verse describes thoughts of suicide.
The famous line, “Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown,” would inspire Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel, Sometimes A Great Notion. John Mellencamp, having his roots in folk music, would pay homage to the great troubadour by writing a song of the same title and including it on his 1989 album, Big Daddy. Mellencamp’s song itself is strongly informed by the American Folk tradition.
‘Cotton Fields’ (1940)
Written by Lead Belly himself, the song was originally recorded in 1940. Versions of the song would later be played live and recorded by various artists, including Odetta, Harry Belafonte who boosted the song’s profile by performing it live at Carnegie Hall. It would be a number 13 hit for The Highwaymen in 1961, a legendary supergroup and the country equivalent of The Travelling Wilburys. The band was made of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
Bob Dylan would say of the song, “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.”
‘The Bourgeois Blues’ (1937)
A very important political song for Lead Belly, one he wrote in response to the time that he travelled to Washington D.C to record a few songs for the Library of Congress, and the Lomax brothers discovered him. As the title indeed suggests, the song is a protest again the Jim Crow laws, racism, segregation, and in general, the poor conditions which Black Americans lived under in the deep south. Unfortunately, the song is proving to still be relevant to this day.
The song is a huge source of influence – it has been covered by Pete Seeger, Ry Cooder, and Billy Bragg. When Led Belly moved to New York City, he found a lot of support and commonality with left-wing intellectuals and artists, who also had ties with the surrealist movement. Because of this affiliation, the question has often been raised to what extent was Led Belly involved with the Communist Party, and whether he had help from this affiliation to write the song.
‘Black Betty’ (1939)
Lead Belly is often accredited for penning this classic, although earlier versions of it do appear to have surfaced earlier than 1939. Some critics ascertain that Lead Belly took an earlier version of a standard black American Traditional folk song, and adapted it to make it his own. His version of this classic appears to be sung in acapella – there was no instrumentation to accompany his signing. Although you can hear his signature foot stomping and hand clapping throughout the record.
The song would be brought to legendary status in 1977, when the band Ram Jam recorded a version of it, with some changes to the lyrics. The Lomax twins (the brothers mostly responsible for a lot of Lead Belly’s recordings) have been quoted as saying: “Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song.”
‘The Midnight Special’ (1934)
Initially, the Lomax twins mistakenly accredited Lead Belly as the author; it is instead a traditional folk song derived from Black American slavery, which predates Lead Belly’s time. Lead Belly recorded his version of the song at Angola Prison in Louisianna. The only thing that’s more rock n’ roll than that, is that Lead Belly also inserted some of his own lyrics to the song’s stanzas, including an anecdote about a Houston jailbreak.
John and Alan Lomax, in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs, explain that ‘The Midnight Special’ is a train; the lyrics tell a story of the ‘The Midnight Special’ shining its light into Sugar Land Prison. It is essentially a song about escaping slavery.
‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ (1944)
Otherwise known as ‘In the Pines’, ‘My Girl’, or ‘Black Girl’, the authorship of all of these versions are unknown and date all the way back to the late 1800s. What is known, however, is that the traditional folk song most likely originated in the Southern Appalachian area of the United States. The folk song would enter the pop music realm when it was recorded by The Four Pennies, an English Beat group and giving them a top 20 hit.
The song would reach even greater heights of popularity when Nirvana covered it live at their last gig in 1993: MTV Unplugged in New York City. In his notebooks, Kurt Cobain noted Lead Belly’s Last Session Vol. 1 as an intricate influence when formulating and experimenting to find Nirvana’s signature sound.