June 16, 2016 • 7:44 pm 0
January 21, 2016 • 12:51 pm 0
Lead 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.
August 21, 2015 • 9:45 pm 0
Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the climate made necessary topical rock and soul songs which documented the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine”, the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, “What’s Going On?”, and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. It was also more or less expected that in these times of trouble, serious artists would weigh in on the events with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was fuelled by chart successes. Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs were largely the catalyst for the strain of rock music with a message that thrived throughout the decade. And while it’s true that from 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile from touring, leaning more towards poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical, “George Jackson” was his wildly unexpected return form.Performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for today’s all-star rock charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, as well as a handful of more apolitical songs.
Later that month at San Quentin in the summer of 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged escape attempt following a prison riot in which five inmates and a guard were killed. Less than a month after the Jackson incident in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was the call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also tells the story of Jackson.
Having made it to California from the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery landed Jackson in prison, his sentence indeterminate. He found trouble on the inside when guards took an immediate dislike to him; his sentences were extended—chiefly behind events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three black inmates and a white guard were killed. Using his time in solitary to educate himself, he studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crimes in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover—declaring the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one—had set out to decimate them, and other groups like them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause celebre. But a few days before his trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain; this time it was Jackson who was shot while running across the yard in an alleged escape attempt.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:
“Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards”
The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”
July 25, 2013 • 9:47 am 1
The story of Chicago’s 15-year-old Emmett Till (born today in 1941), murdered while on summer vacation in Money, Mississippi, was among the events in the mid-‘50s that mobilized the Civil Rights Movement; the tragedy was chronicled by Bob Dylan in one of his earliest songs. This clip contains a bit of background as well as the audio of the song which tells the story.
Following the recent events in Florida, where George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the names Emmett Till, as well as slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers have been invoked by civil rights leaders. It is unthinkable, though entirely possible, that a generation of young folk are unfamiliar with these names, icons of the civil rights movement that marched on, throughout the South and toward Washington in the Summer of ’63. But there remains similarities in the cases: Like the families of Till and Evers, in the face of extreme tragedy, Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and his father Tracy, are working with the civil rights communities for justice. And like Till and Evers, the death of Trayvon Martin has moved artists to tell his story, in an effort to increase knowledge and inspire action. Here are but two, “Trayvon” by Jasiri X, and “Justice (If You’re 17)” by Wyclef Jean.
In this 50th anniversary year of Freedom Summer and the March on Washington, while we at once celebrate a victory for same sex couples across the country, we must mourn the return to states rights and the constricting of voting and women’s rights down South, as well as the injustice of the trial in Florida and ridiculous Stand Your Ground laws. Young men of color remain especially at risk of racial profiling, targeted and incarcerated in vastly disproportionate numbers. As the California prison hunger strike (protesting torturous conditions of solitary confinement) now in its third week continues, while overseas US drones hunt and kill innocent people mercilessly, “the conversation on race” is having its moment in the media spotlight. We must insist it continue and on Freedom Now, as the generations of our parents and grandparents did. Deep in my heart, I do believe, there is a song waiting to be written and sung at this year’s March on Washington.
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust…
…But if all us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
July 15, 2012 • 11:30 am 0
The following is an adaptation of a section from my book, Keep on Pushing. The passage concerns the legacy of protest music and American hero, Woody Guthrie. The people’s singer was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912 on July 14. This weekend, all over the world, people gather to sing-out, in honor of his 100th birthday and centennial year.
“Paper Planes,” M.I.A.’s irresistible and ubiquitous alternative hip-hop track from 2007-08 combines her riff on the lyrical threads of the Clash classic, “Straight to Hell”, as well as a sample of it, alongside her own insouciant rap style and insistent and poetic verses. Punctuated by percussive pop, pop, pops and ka-ching sounds, the songs roots roll deep—from British punk and black empowerment, to American topical protest, in the mode of Woody Guthrie. Five years later, Maya Aprulgasam’s “Paper Planes” endures as music with a pointed message, a high-tilt boogie down production taking in immigration reform, ongoing war, and economic disrepair, though at the time it was released, it was largely misunderstood. It was also a hit record, the likes of which Woody Guthrie would not enjoy or ever know in his lifetime. But safe to say, he was the first contemporary singer to take on the dignity of the immigrant as the subject of a song: In 1948, Guthrie wrote “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” It is performed here by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Originally appearing on her 2007 album, Kala, “Paper Planes” pushed ahead in 2008 when it was featured in the trailer for the stoner movie, Pineapple Express, as well as in the musical montage sequence to Slumdog Millionaire (the latter film arguably introducing a portion of mass American audiences to the multi-dimensionality of India at the time of its emergence in the world economy). Downloads of “Paper Planes” soared and an uncensored video became a YouTube sensation; to date the single has sold over two million singles in the US and has topped countless best-of lists and polls, receiving more royalties and accolades than Woody Guthrie or even Joe Strummer ever saw. The artist said her song’s success surprised her; she reckoned few would ever hear it, given her indie status at the time of its recording. Though on her way to hitsville, the song took some hits and stuck in some craws; critics thought it thuggish and hard and found ways to put down the singer’s tone. And while Arulpragasam dubs it a satire, “Paper Planes” also fits the categories of protest or empowerment anthem, reclaiming racial stereotypes.
“I don’t think immigrants are that threatening to society at all,” she said. “They’re just happy they’ve survived some war somewhere.”
As for the gunshots and cash register ring: “You can either apply it on a street level and go, ‘Oh, you’re talking about somebody robbing you and saying I’m going to take your money.’ But, really, it could be a much bigger idea: Someone’s selling you guns and making money. Selling weapons and the companies that manufacture guns—that’s probably the biggest moneymaker in the world.”
“Paper Planes” is commentary; an alternative point of view of the hardship of immigrant life and reconsideration of stereotypes leveled at those arriving from the developing world. When M.I.A. was put into the position of having to explain her song, the truth emerged in the light: The majority of immigrants are hard-working people. Many recent arrivals from far off shores have second and third jobs, driving cabs, working in restaurants, supporting families at a distance, while living multi-generationally in cramped rooms. When they die, their lives often go unacknowledged, by strangers in a strange land. That the M.I.A. song was ill-perceived speaks largely to the idea that there isn’t much familiarity or empathy for the subject of immigrants in our land, in the media, or among what used to be called “the record buying public.” It may also serve as an example of how unsung people and stories can be great motivators for songs and dialogues on a theme. Certainly the Guthrie, Strummer, and M.I.A. songs share a common message, and a common form, a heart-worn song.
The depth of Brown’s message song catapulted him to a front seat in community leadership; M.I.A. has also become a symbol for young people of color, especially for women’s empowerment across the world, from the subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, to Hollis Queens, and East LA. Surely that is a good thing, though there are those who have designated her work as dangerous as they did Brown’s; what these misguided souls seem not to get is that both James Brown and M.I.A. are artists. Although M.I.A. hails from London, she was raised partly in Sri Lanka and in India by activist parents associated with the fight to liberate the Tamil region of their native country. Today, she makes her home in Brooklyn. Confusing? Not if you consider that Maya Arulpragasam, the person behind the artist M.I.A. is a refugee from a war-torn country, looking for a home in this world. The spirit of Woody Guthrie is alive and well in her and in all artists who use their voices, guitars and pens to fight injustice where they see it, recording it in a song.
[post-publication, it occurred to me that there is an undeniable link binding “Paper Planes” to Althea and Donna’s 1978 UK hit, “Uptown Top Ranking,” but that’s an extrapolation that will have to wait for another occasion].
July 8, 2011 • 4:02 am 0
“A pleasing survey of soul music, from Lead Belly to Johnny Otis to Michael Franti to Louis Farrakhan.”–Kirkus Reviews “…packed with informative details and commentary, and those who are willing to give it the thoughtful reading it deserves (perhaps along with listening to a sampling of recordings) will be rewarded.”–Library Journal
June 12, 2011 • 6:22 am 0
“A pleasing survey of soul music, from Lead Belly to Johnny Otis to Michael Franti to Louis Farrakhan.”–Kirkus Reviews