LEADBELLY – ” Where Did You Sleep Last Night ” Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 1

Posted: August 7, 2018 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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It’s hard to go wrong buying a compilation of recordings by the man named Huddie Ledbetter, given that his earliest songs were tracked by for the Library of Congress by John and Alan Lomax when he was in Angola Prison. An innovator on the 12-string guitar, he crossed over to white audiences in the ‘30s thanks to the popularity of his renditions of spirituals and folk songs, both original and traditional, such as “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” and “C.C. Rider,” among many others that would be eventually be covered by his contemporaries, Elvis, Springsteen, Nirvana and Jack White. Even with the most primitive recording techniques, Lead Belly’s commanding power is unmistakably eternal.

Huddie Ledbetter, was better known as Lead Belly, was a folk-blues giant whose music and persona transformed American culture. He sang what he lived (poverty, prison, violence) in songs like ‘Gallow’s Pole’ and ‘Black Betty,’ but he also composed kids’ songs (‘Skip to My Lou’). Called ‘the King of the 12-String Guitar,’ he influenced multitudes: 

In the fall of 1917, at a dance near New Boston, Texas, not far the borderline, where the Lone Star State meets Arkansas and Oklahoma, Walter Boyd, aka Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly, shot Will Stafford between the eyes. Enraged over Ledbetter’s derogatory remarks about his girlfriend, Stafford drew his pistol a little too slowly and a moment later, lay dead on the floor. Charged with homicide on December 13th, Ledbetter, then aged 33, had previously served one year’s time on the Harrison County chain gang for assaulting a woman. After languishing six months behind bars, Lead Belly “made a good run, but ran too slow,” as the old song goes and was now serving a 30-year sentence at the Shaw State Prison farm.

In 1925, Texas Governor Pat Neff was so charmed by a song Lead Belly had spontaneously composed in his honour that he commuted his murder sentence. But, five years later, Huddie Ledbetter found himself behind bars once again, this time in a Louisiana prison.

Whether born in 1885, or 1888 (no one knows for sure), Huddie grew up working on the farm owned by his father, Wes Ledbetter, in Mooringsport, Louisiana. By age ten, he’d mastered the “windjammer,” a Cajun-style button accordion, along with the rudiments of the guitar, taught to him by his Uncle Terrel Ledbetter. As a teenager, Lead Belly was already a father, known to pack a Colt revolver and feared for his hot temper.

After leaving home, the young troubadour soon crossed paths with Blind Lemon Jefferson on the streets of Dallas where together, they allegedly tore their “guitars all to pieces,” playing for tips on the streets, and bars of the rough and tumble Deep Ellum neighborhood. Initially written off as a “songster” for his diverse repertoire which dipped into gospel (that he recorded under the pseudonym of Deacon L. J. Bates) as well as country-style ballads, Blind Lemon became famous for his “lowdown blues” like “Black Snake Moan” (1926) and “See that My Grave is Kept Clean” first released in 1927 (and later recorded by Bob Dylan on his 1962 debut album, as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Peter Paul & Mary, and the Grateful Dead under the title “One Kind Favor”). Thanks to the windfall from his enormous record sales, Jefferson lived his final years in style, allegedly buying a Cadillac limousine and hiring a chauffeur to drive him to gigs. But Blind Lemon wasn’t long for this world, found dead of a possible heart attack in Chicago on a frozen December night in 1929.

Had he lived long enough to collect royalties from the multitude of recordings of his songs, Lead Belly would have become rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams, as the author of such classics as “Goodnight Irene,” “The Midnight Special,” “Gallows Pole,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “The Rock Island Line,” which rocked Britain in 1954 after “The King of Skiffle,” Lonnie Donegan, sang a revved-up cover version, inspiring a clutch of Liverpool louts led by John Lennon called the Quarrymen to bang drums and strum guitars. As George Harrison once remarked, “No Lead Belly – No Beatles!” (Harrison, along with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn helped popularize the 12-string guitar in rock with the sweet chime of their Rickenbacker guitars, while Lead Belly’s sound was brassy and ballsy. Inspired by the left-hand bass runs played by ragtime and boogie-woogie pianists, Lead Belly’s vigorous riffs bounced like sledgehammers off a trampoline.)

Said to be America’s greatest repository of Black music, Lead Belly’s vast repertoire of cowboy ballads, field hollers, folk songs, and children’s tunes were popularized by Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Motorhead, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Taj Mahal, Nirvana and Jack White, to name a few.

In 1964, the Animals topped the charts with the haunting “House of the Rising Sun,” a song often attributed to Ledbetter, that is said to be a favourite work song of miners as far back as 1905. Another song Lead Belly was credited with having written is “Skip to My Lou,” after recording perhaps the earliest known version of the song. But a bit of research reveals the Creole square-dance number originated before the Civil War, years before Lead Belly was born. “Skip to My Lou” (the “Lou” in question is a variation on “loo,” not a toilet, but Scottish for the word “love”) wasn’t the only children’s song in Lead Belly’s enormous repertoire.

In the kids’ tune “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” the goslings mourn as the gander weeps over his wife, who is found dead down by the mill pond, apparently of a broken neck, after “standing on her head.” If this isn’t enough to disturb young minds, Lead Belly’s “Grey Goose” told the story of an indestructible supernatural bird who refuses to die, no matter how the hunter (an apostatized preacher who ignored the Sabbath to pursue a tasty Sunday dinner) wrestles with it. He tries everything he can think of to kill the poor thing, from shooting it, boiling it, cutting it with a saw to feeding it to his hogs, whose powerful jaws still couldn’t manage to squeeze the life out of it.

Enter the “Ballad Hunters,” the father and son team of John A. and Alan Lomax, who “were deeply moved by [Leadbetter’s] flawless tenor voice which rang out across the cotton field like a big sweet-toned trumpet.” After recording Lead Belly’s “great, green-painted 12-string guitar,” for the Library of Congress, the itinerant musicologists had his second jail sentence commuted after serving just three years, on the condition that he become their chauffeur and bodyguard. Lead Belly had successfully sung his way out of jail not once, but twice!

While John A. and Alan Lomax presented Lead Belly’s music to the world, organizing concerts and film shoots (where he often appeared in prison stripes, with a ball and chain around his leg) they spirited him off to live in the ultra-white town of Wilton, Connecticut.

“The Blues,” as Muddy Waters reminded us, “is not a matter of colour, it’s a matter of heart.” Between the burgeoning “Folk Boom” of the early 60s and the rediscovery of Delta bluesmen, Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly’s star was once more on the ascendancy.

In 1965, Lawrence Cohn (soon to become Vice President of CBS/Epic Records and the visionary behind the label’s Legacy series) compiled Lead Belly’s Library of Congress Recordings, a 3-LP box set for Elektra Records.

The Library of Congress made all of those recordings,” Cohn recalled. “But if anyone wanted to release any of that material, they had to get permission from Martha. But she had no faith in anyone. I was the one and only person she gave permission to the Library of Congress to work on the material. She proof-read the lyrics with me and we had a good time. I had to decipher Lead Belly’s speech and would ask, ‘Did he just say, ‘There was a man, milking a cow on Mars?’ and Martha would laugh herself silly and tell me what he actually said. I spent a year running back and forth from New York to Washington. I found some great photographs in a box that belonged to Old Man Lomax, [John A.] that hadn’t been opened since 1935.”

In the early 1970s, Ry Cooder’s funky take of “On A Monday” along with his cover of “Bourgeois Blues” four years later, helped shine a light on Lead Belly for a younger generation just discovering roots music.

 in 1976, Leadbelly hit the silver screen. The movie, directed by Gordon Parks, was loosely based on Ledbetter’s life, and starred Roger E. Mosely, who did a fine job albeit lacking Lead Belly’s chiseled Cherokee cheekbones and soul-piercing gaze.

Nick Cave’s cover of ‘Black Betty’ was another song that brought up the spectre of Lead Belly. I had no idea what the song was about. A mean woman? But it seemed liked some secret kind thing I wasn’t privy to. As there was no internet then, the meaning of ‘Black Betty’ remained a mystery for years. I later discovered it was slang for a bullwhip, which made the song take on a frighteningly brutal dimension. What tipped me over the edge was a review of Tom Waits’s Swordfishtombones, which a critic called a mix of ‘Lead Belly and Kurt Weill.’

Lead Belly’s music came from a strange, very brutal world I knew nothing of,” he explained. “I could barely understand a single word the guy sang, but could taste the death, despair and deprivation. He sounded like a man trapped in the bottom of an empty well, bellowing to be released. And that guitar… He was picking it and beating on it like a drum at the same time. It was naked, raw and definitely not from FM radio or the suburbs where I grew up. Lead Belly was the perfect gateway drug. I wanted the weird, mysterious stuff, with a guttural, raw sound. It had to have scars, scratches and pops. The voice had to sound like a ghost from a different era. Pretty soon I was strung out on Robert Johnson, another shadowy name I explored. But Lead Belly was the Rosetta Stone. 

For the last eight years of his life, Lead Belly managed to stay out of prison. Whether dubbed “A diamond in the rough,” “A man of the people,” or “A true genius of folk,” Lead Belly’s ongoing legacy has overcome the years of degradation and oppression he routinely faced as a Black man from the Deep South.

“I’m just letting the people know what American folk music is,” Lead Belly once said. “Unwritten music, made up by the mind [that reveals] how you feel when you sing.”

Lead Belly’s vast repertoire consisted of between 300 and 400 songs that he played from memory. Whether written by him or stamped with his indelible imprint, they forever changed the cultural landscape of America and the world.

He was 65 when he died [at New York’s Bellevue Hospital on December 6th, 1949]. He was a very strong guy but had been decimated by Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Although he loomed very large with his twelve-string guitar, he was actually short, just 5.6 and a half! I didn’t get that from Martha, but from his Texas prison records, which had his height and weight and other information.”

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