Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Born to Rock: Lead Belly

leadbellyLead Belly was born around this day of January in 1888 or nine. This is a portion of his story, adapted from my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

“I’m obsessed with him. He’s my favorite performer,” said Kurt Cobain. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” claimed George Harrison, and the same may as well be said for Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page was rocking “Cotton Fields” back in 1957. According to Van Morrison, “If it wasn’t for Lead Belly, I may never have been here.” And yet, Lead Belly—born Huddie Ledbetter near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1888—is rarely the first traditional American musician historians credit with the creation of rock ‘n’ roll or the bands of the British Invasion. His contribution to rock is as fundamental and profound as those of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, so why is it we don’t hear that much anymore about his legend? Perhaps it can be blamed on the boll weevil he sung about—and it indeed may have something to do with cotton—though the diminishing of Lead Belly’s influence on rock is likely just another case of the forgotten origins of song.

The Louisianan’s sound first came to impact the young lads who would go on to form the classic rock bands of the ’60s via the British Isle’s mid-’50s skiffle craze. Rooted in the jug band style of the 1920s, skiffle’s homemade and improvised style relied on the wacky sounds of household items like washboard, comb, and homemade instruments—the stuff that makes for its irresistible, ecstatic sound. Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan’s frantic version of “Rock Island Line”, first popularized by Lead Belly, swept across the land like skiffle-mania, boosting guitar sales and launching a thousand bands, like young Jim Page’s combo as well as the Quarrymen (who we all know by now birthed the Beatles).

For Morrison—who’d already developed a taste for the blues voices of the American South—skiffle provided confirmation of the potential for what an Irishman could do with a Black American folk sound. The Lead Belly repertoire meeting English skiffle marked the beginning of his long association with rock ‘n’ roll; though stateside he was more of a singular phenomenon, as well as a folker.

Coming up through traditional, mythological American folkways, it is said that folklorist John Lomax discovered Lead Belly during the singer’s stay at Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary (it was his third incarceration). It was there that Lomax and his son Alan recorded songs by him for the Library of Congress, some of them passed on to Lead Belly through his association with Blind Lemon Jefferson; among them was the standard “Goodnight Irene”, which eventually became Lead Belly’s calling card.

As one version of the story goes, Lomax pressed a record of Lead Belly and presented it to the state’s governor, who was so taken with it that the prison doors unlocked for his release. So off went Lomax and Lead Belly, at this point close to 50 years old, to New York and toward a career in show business.

As a late-comer to the game, Lead Belly was not in on the earliest rush of race records in the 1920s and 1930s, and so it was his less-than-polished Lomax recordings that would come to define him; that may be one contributing factor toward explaining a present-day resistance to a full embrace of Lead Belly as pre-rock ‘n’ roller. Additionally, Lomax’s song-catcher practices are a source of controversy and a sore subject among blues researchers. Objections to the way Lead Belly was discovered, promoted, and recorded are cited; indeed, shortly after his initial agreement with him, it appears Lead Belly found the arrangement with Lomax unacceptable too. Though not long after severing ties with Lomax (he would eventually resume relations with the Lomax family) Lead Belly accepted a press opportunity to be photographed, costumed in black and white prisoner’s attire, performing his role of ex-convict made good. By the end of the ’30s, he’d gone on to find success writing topical songs (“The Bourgeois Blues”) and fell in with the left-leaning protest singing community—though he didn’t necessarily abide its progressive politics. His association with fellow travelers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, found the FBI hunting him as well. What Lead Belly, the folksinger, really desired was to launch a career in Hollywood, but that wasn’t meant to be.

None of these political or personal, salient or picayune points debated by historians or surveyed here concerned the queen of civil rights music, Odetta. She cut straight to the emotional delivery and content of Lead Belly’s songs and made his work her guidepost throughout her long career; she was the bridge to folk rock. “When I started in the years of folk music, it was a discovery,” she said to an audience at UCLA in 2008. As part of a self-directed exploration of her cultural heritage, she came upon the Lomax recordings in the 1950s and recognized in Lead Belly’s songs the sound of slavery, “my people,” she said. Her earliest recordings include Ledbetter arrangements of “Alabama Bound” and “Take This Hammer”, released in 1956 and 1957 respectively; she is famously credited for inspiring Dylan to pick up the acoustic guitar. Dylan’s recording debut (prior to his own solo album, on which he name-checked Lead Belly) came as a harmonica player, for calypso and Lead Belly fan Harry Belafonte, who cut the traditional “Midnight Special” for his 1962 album of the same title. Belafonte had previously recorded Lead Belly’s composition “Cotton Fields” in 1959, one of the songs that gets covered and covered by artists diverse as Buck Owens to Buckwheat Zydeco (young Jimmy Page played it with his skiffle band). By 1969, when Creedence Clearwater Revival covered both “Cotton Fields” and “Midnight Special” for their Willy and the Poor Boys album, doing Lead Belly had become a rock ‘n’ roll requirement or at the very least a very trendy thing to do—even the Beach Boys had a hit with “Cotton Fields.”

In 1970, Led Zeppelin got the Lead out when they turned “Gallis Pole” into “Gallows Pole” on their adventures in acoustic folk album, III (they later revived it in their Page and Plant incarnation). First recorded by Lead Belly in 1939 as “Gallis Pole”, the song is based on “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”, likely of Scandinavian origin and run through the British ballad tradition. Page first heard the song as arranged by Fred Gerlach. “He’d been influenced originally by Lead Belly,” Page is quoted as saying in Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography, though Zeppelin was certainly not unaware of Lead Belly. “He was one of the main movers when I was a kid,” says Robert Plant (quoted in Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, also the source for the endorsements by Harrison, Cobain, and Morrison above). Plant and his collaborator, Alison Krauss, first bonded musically at a Lead Belly tribute concert. Perhaps there is more to the story of how they got the Led in their name than goes the legend of John Entwistle’s joke about the potential for a supergroup to fall flat, “like a lead zeppelin.”

But like cotton, the King of the 12-String could not remain king forever. Them old cotton fields back home were beginning to recede from popular consciousness as songs of urban discontent began to take their place. In addition, the Rolling Stones, who had previously brought their audience to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were now touting Robert Johnson. Their 1969 version of his song “Love in Vain” preceded to the market place the 1970 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its new cache of Johnson songs. The Johnson and Delta influence remains a big deal to this day, its legends and iconography completely enmeshed with blues culture as we know it. Lead Belly’s prison songs, children’s songs, and field and work songs didn’t fit so neatly into bluesology, and rock became a Lead-free zone, with a few notable exceptions.

In 1977, Ram Jam put some Southern rock funk into Lead Belly’s “Black Betty,”  though the Top 20 single wasn’t a hit with critics or (according to lore) with racial equality groups. The track played Lead Belly’s rock potential to maximum effect (though it is regrettable if anyone got hurt by it). As the ’80s arrived, punk rock and new wave took Lead Belly underground with it, as Bongwater, Michelle Shocked, and X became keepers of the flame. Proudly in synch with the pulse of the people and the hard times that echoed his original era, X turned “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” into an elegy for a loved one and revived “Rock Island Line” with their folky side project, the Knitters.” A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly joined Little Richard and Fishbone on “Rock Island Line” and Beach Boy Brian Wilson came back for another pass at Lead Belly on “Goodnight Irene”, though the project did more for boosting the rock cred of Guthrie (who got the Springsteen and Mellencamp treatment) than it did for Lead Belly.

From there, it was on to the Pacific Northwest and under the bridge where Kurt Cobain lived. The Nirvana man brought his tape of Lead Belly songs to his band’s earliest rehearsals; he and fellow founding grunge scenester Mark Lanegan shared an enthusiasm for him, as heard on their duet of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (found on Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet album). Nirvana’s definitive performance of the song on Unplugged was an immediate highlight of that show, when Cobain’s guttural wrenching was assumed to be tied to his personal life and precarious emotional states. It’s hard to top that one, though when Alvin Youngblood Hart rejuvenated “Gallows Pole” in Lead Belly-style on his 1996 album, Big Mama’s Door, he brought back Lead Belly’s quickness and dexterity on his instrument full circle: Just man and guitar.

Lead Belly lived out his final days in New York, eventually succumbing to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949. Had he lived another year, he would’ve seen his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”, turned into a million-seller, a #1 hit as interpreted lightly by the Weavers. The overlooked genius of Lead Belly is that his songs and mighty rearrangements continue to transgress genres and generations, from folk to rock, from Pete Seeger to Jack White. Just think what we would’ve missed had Jimmy Page pursued a career in research science as he’d intended rather than picking his way to the top of the “Gallows Pole.” By the 21st century, the White Stripes played “Red Bird” and “Take a Whiff on Me”, and if the show went well, they’d close it with “Boll Weevil”, yet another folk tune popularized by Lead Belly. I’ve heard of Two Gallants playing “Mother’s Blues” aka “Little Children’s Blues” live, though only time can tell who’ll be the next in line to shine an ever-lovin’ light on the songs of Lead Belly.

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Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Origin of Song, rock 'n' roll, Rock Birthdays, , , , ,

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