Huddie Ledbetter was born in 1888 (most likely) on a plantation in Mooringsport, Louisiana, near the Louisiana/Texas border. When he was 15 he fathered a child, at 16 a second and because of this and the outrage that came from his local community he set out on his own to become a travelling minstrel. He had already learned the art of the guitar and accordion from his paternal uncle Terrel and when he left he travelled to Dallas. When he arrived in Dallas he studied the blues with Blind Lemon Jefferson, a man nine years his younger.
After doing that for a few years he got sick and returned to Mooringsport where he met his first wife Aletha. After that he was in and out of prison for various things such as murder, assault, and various other violent crimes. He was known for his volatile temper. Some say he acquired the moniker Lead Belly after being shot in the stomach by a shotgun blast and surviving. Others say it was just a play on his last name. Whatever the real story is, Lead Belly is one of the greatest and most influential blues musicians of all time.
From Led Zeppelin to Kurt Cobain to Deer Tick, Lead Belly has been one of the most turned to blues musicians in history. His body of work is second to none and he is not only known for his brilliance in the field of blues, but also folk music. Lead Belly was the master of the twelve string guitar and a leader, musically, in the pursuit of racial equality. In a way blues music was the hip hop of its time. It talked about the way things were in the African-American community that white people simply had no true impression of existing.
Lead Belly met the famous Alan and John Lomax, the Folk Music Historians while he was in a Texas prison camp. They heard of his mastery of the twelve string and wanted to record him. Alan Lomax wrote, “In the Texas Pen he was the number one man in the number one gang on the number one farm on the state – the man who could carry the lead row in the field for 12 or 14 hours a day under the broiling July and August sun. He could pick a bale of cotton in a day – that’s 500 pounds!”
These words of wonder and awe sound like thinly veiled racist slurs today, but rest assured they were not. These men traveled with each other and they successfully petitioned multiple governors at multiple times to have Ledbetter released from different prisons so that he may continue his music career. Though he never found true success in his lifetime, posthumously he became an icon. He died in 1941 of Lou Gehrig’s disease poor. Pete Seeger once said, “It’s a pure tragedy he didn’t live another six months, because all his dreams as a performer would have come true.”
And with that cliff notes version of his life we come to the album we will be discussing this week. From the label The Archive of Folk Music we have Lead Belly. Some of his most iconic songs are featured and many being iconic because they not only have been redone and made successful by other musicians, but because of what they say about race relations in that time. He lived in hard times, as we’ve discussed and he had no problem speaking of those hard times in a truthful, honest way.
The Bourgeois Blues
Alan Lomax and Lead Belly went to Washington D.C. to record some music and after they finished they went out to celebrate with their wives. After being kicked out of various establishments Lead Belly sat down and wrote this song. It explains the terrible treatment ha and his wife endured with such clarity that it out and out disgusts me nearly 80 years later. Here’s a verse that I simply can’t get out of my head:
Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say’n I don’t want no niggers up there
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around
Medley: Looky, Looky Yonder/Black Betty/Yellow Woman’s Doorbells
These were considered “work” songs for 19th century black slaves. Lead Belly first recorded these songs for the Lomax folklorists in 1936 acapella and they later wrote in their book American Ballads and Folk Songs that, “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.” This song was covered by Manfred Mann and Ram Jam among others in the classic rock era.
Medley: Poor Howard/ Green Corn
The first part of the medley tells the story of a poor musician that used to go around to the plantations and play the sukey jumps. Sukey was a term for dating in the Deep South in the early part of the 20th century and sukey jumps are explained in The Life and Legend of Lead Belly by Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell, “Most of the parties and dances … were held in rural houses miles from the nearest town and often miles from the nearest white homestead. They called them sukey jumps.” Sort of like an all-black cocktail party.
The other line that is telling in the song is the line spoken repeatedly about a girl in a pretty red dress. He doesn’t infer anything except he says Howard has died and there’s a girl with a red dress on. She could be mourning him, although black would seem to be the more appropriate color. She could be someone that he intended on dating or that liked him. The other alternative is that she could have been a woman, maybe white, that wasn’t “approved” of and maybe Howard left under dubious circumstances.
The Gallis Pole
This is one of Lead Belly’s more haunting songs. It seems the song originated sometime in the 16th century from Finland of all places. How it came to America, I do not know. However, he, much like a teacher, deftly explains what the lyrics of the song mean and in the middle of the song breaks character, if you will, to explain what’s happening. Here is the beginning of the song:
Father, did you bring me the silver,
Father, did you bring me the gold?
What did you bring me, dear father,
Keep me from the gallows pole?
Yeah, what did you?
Yeah, what did you?
What did you bring me; keep me from the gallows pole?
Spoken: In olden times years ago, when you put a man in prison behind the bars in a jailhouse, if you had fifteen or twenty-five or thirty dollars you could save him from the gallows pole ’cause they gonna hang him if you don’t bring up a little money. Everybody would come to the jailhouse and boy would ran upside the jail; he was married, too. As for who brang him something, lot of comfort, here comes his mother.
De Kalb Woman
There are two prominent De Kalb’s in the South, one near Atlanta and the other in Texas. It’s safe to say that Lead Belly is talking about the one in Texas. This is such a gorgeous song the way Lead Belly jumps through the bar blues and bass licks with his 12 string. It’s a song about a dysfunctional relationship that at times makes the man want to kill himself and at the same time makes him filled with joy. No other place is that exemplified more than in the verse:
“Whiskey, it drunk all the time
I get drunk baby to get you off my mind
Jumped in the river and I started to drown
Thought about my baby and I turned around.”
This is the best sample of his finger picking style on the entire record as well. The last part of the song is purely instrumental and brilliant guitar playing.
Noted Rider (No Good Rider)
This song is about a guy that falls for a prostitute. It’s a very quick three verse song that talks about him falling in love with her, but her only wanting his money. There’s a case to be made that many of Lead Belly’s songs coming from real life experiences so I don’t doubt the veracity of this being such.
Big Fat Woman
Lead Belly had what we may deem as a crude side, but coming from a very poor area of Louisiana and spending as much time in jail as he did songs like this play to that element. It’s funny when you listen to him sing about how he wants the “Fat Woman” to get away from him in the beginning, but by the end he’s saying, “I love you big fat woman, gonna get this po’ boy killed.”
Burrow, Love and Go
I can’t really make heads or tails of this song. Basically he’s just talking about how they have “high-powered” women in his day that can talk on the radio and fly airplanes. Perhaps, it’s an early version of female empowerment, akin to something like Tupac’s “Dear Mama”.
Bring Me a Li’l Water Silvy
This is a work song. Lead Belly talked about these songs in many of the jail house interviews he did with John Lomax. When he was working on the plantation or on the chain gang in jail he would lead the singing in the field. It was a way to pass the time and create cohesion within the unit. This was something that originated with the slaves in the South and being from Louisiana it may have been something he learned from his family.
Julie Ann Johnson
“Julie Ann Johnson” was another work song sung on chain gangs. It has a two-part phrase structure for each verse. There is an accent on the third beat of each measure, vocalized with the sound “wah” and “hah.” This signals when the coordinated work activity would take place, in this case, the swinging of the axes. This was one of the songs he played for Alan and John Lomax when they “discovered” him at Angola State Prison in Louisiana. It’s another very fast song that lasts less than two minutes.
Whoa Back Buck
When I spoke of crude songs earlier none was cruder than this one. I will merely share the lyrics and you may judge for yourself:
Whoa, back, Buck, git over Paul
You steppin’ on my cotton, say, one & all.
Whoa, back, Buck, git over Lamb,
You steppi’n on my cotton like you don’t give a damn.
I’m a rowdy soul, I’m a rowdy soul
Don’t see a nigger in a mile or mo.
Took my gal to the party-o,
She sat on a steeple,
She let a fart & broke my heart
And shit all over the people.
Tell my wife when you go to the hills,
I’m here workin’ at the sorghum mill.
Last year was a good crop year
And everybody knowed it.
Paw didn’t raise but a bushel of corn
And some damn rascal stole it.
I’m a rowdy soul, I’m a rowdy soul.
I’m rowdy all around my red asshole.
This is a traditional song, written in the 1920’s. It tells the story of a railroad worker that killed a man during a crap game and was hung on January 19, 1894. He wasn’t the originator of it, but he was one of the first to actually mangle the lyrics and mix it with the other traditional song “John Henry”. Taking from his example many other artists did the same and it wasn’t until the original versions of both were found that they were separated into the two songs they are today. This is also the only song on the album that he uses the accordion. It’s almost my personal favorite.
Lead Belly could conceivably be referred to as the greatest influence on rock n’ roll, country and folk music in history. He did more to shape all three than any other has before or since. His influence is felt even to this day from Old Crow Medicine Show to Nirvana. Sharing this album with you seemed like such an easy choice to make, noting how raw and brilliant it is, I hope you seek his music out and enjoy it yourself.