Saturday, February 06, 2016

Lead Belly "The King Of 12-String Guitar" & Show # 589


Deep in the grooves of a time period long, long ago Huddie William Ledbetter was born. He came into this world in January of 1988 in Mooringsport, Louisiana. The facts of Huddie’s life are often times conflicting, although many things have been written about him. Better known as Lead Belly, he first began his foray into music at a young age when his uncle Terrell taught him accordion. He would also learn other instruments such as piano, mandolin, violin, and of course guitar. The guitar that Lead Belly is most known for playing was a 12-string guitar that he named Stella. It was with this guitar that he would project his loud booming voice and captivate audiences with his the pure, raw emotion that was displayed when he played music. Rooted in a variety of genres such as folk, blues, spiritual songs and country, Lead Belly would often adapt traditional songs (as have many folk and blues musicians) in his own unique way. Around 1912, Lead Belly met Blind Lemon Jefferson with whom he would play music around Dallas, Texas. Jefferson often called the “Father Of The Texas Blues”, introduced Lead Belly to the 12-string guitar.

In addition to his musical background and his life in the Deep South, there are other factors of Lead Belly’s life that caused him to become more recognized for his musical abilities. Ledbetter worked as a farmer, a sharecropper and he had his share of troubles, having been in prison several times on some pretty serious charges. But it was in prison where he would be discovered by John and Alan Lomax. These two would have an effect on the outcome of not only of his release from prison, but his future in music. As part of the Library of Congress the Lomaxes went around to prisons to find and document folk music that was not contaminated by modern blues and jazz of the day. In the early 30’s they first recorded twelve songs with Lead Belly and in 1934, Lead Belly was pardoned from prison after writing a song for the governor and recording it with the Lomaxes. His recording granted him a pardon on July 25th, 1934. This was the second time that Lead Belly had written a song for a governor and received a pardon for his songwriting and musical abilities.

Lead Belly would go on to make recordings for many different labels such as the Library Of Congress, Folkways, RCA, Capitol Records and others. He worked odd jobs, appeared on the historic and groundbreaking CBS radio show Back From Where I Come From as a regular guest, was a radio host on his own and of course recorded and performed music. His music attracted the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others during the later parts of his life. His influence slowly infiltrated the mainstream populous. While many things have been written about Lead Belly, several conflicting and incorrect, some not, his name is often misspelled. The name Lead Belly is sometimes spelled as one word when it is in fact two. He performed that way and it is spelled that way on his tombstone. The origins of his name are just as fascinating as the tales he spun from his 12-string acoustic guitar.

In December of 1949, Lead Belly passed away due to complications with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). It was believed that this was caused due to his background of hard labour working on farms, and prison life. In 1950, The Weavers covered Lead Belly’s version of the song “Goodnight Irene”. This song became a huge hit going on to sell over two million copies. Sadly, Lead Belly escaped the recognition that he desired in his lifetime. Since this initial song by The Weavers countless artists have gone on to cover and adapt the songs that Lead Belly recorded and performed. Many artists have covered the songs that he was known for, such as “Goodnight Irene”, “Cotton Fields”, “Midnight Special”, “Black Betty”, “Boll Weevil”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and numerous others. In 1968, friend and folk musician Pete Seeger did an entire album of Lead Belly songs entitled Pete Seeger Sings Lead Belly. CCR covered “The Midnight Special”, “Black Betty” was covered by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds”, “Cotton Fields” was covered by The Beach Boys and Nirvana did a rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” for MTV Unplugged. There are many other stories behind the songs and the man that are not mentioned here, but his story lives on like a great folk tale through the songs that he once played and the words that have been written and are still being written about him. Known as “The King of 12-String Guitar”, the music that Lead Belly once performed rings just as loud today as when he was originally performing it on the strings of his guitar.

Lead Belly & His Influence Playlist:

1. Lead Belly - Midnight Special
2. Lead Belly - Where Did You Sleep Last Night
3. Lead Belly - If It Wasn't For Dicky
4. Geeshie Wiley - Skinny Leg Blues
5. Blind Mamie Forehand - Honey In The Rock
6. Blind Lemon Jefferson - Chock House Blues
7. Son House - John The Revelator
8. Lead Belly - We Shall Be Free (With Woody Guthrie & Cisco Houston)
9. Leadbelly - Howard Hughes
10. Leadbelly - Blind Lemon
11. Neko Case - Nobody Knows When You're Down And Out
12. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Black Betty
13. Tom Waits - Goodnight Irene
14. Nirvana - Where Did You Sleep Last Night (1990 Boombox Demo)
15. The Jury - Ain’t It A Shame
16. CCR - The Midnight Special
17. The Triffids - In The Pines
18. The Fall - Bourgois Town
19. The White Stripes - Boll Weevil (John Peel Session - July 25th, 2001)
20. B.B King - Every Day I Have The Blues (Live At The Regal)
21. Bukka White - Shake ‘Em On Down
22. Mississippi Sheiks - The World Is Going Wrong
23. Lightnin’ Hopkins - Automobile Blues
24. Blind Willie McTell - Delia
25. Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee - You’d Better Mind
26. Lead Belly - What' You Gonna Do When The World's On Fire (With Anne Graham)
27. Lead Belly - Roberta

To download this weeks program, visit CJAM's schedule page for Revolution Rock and download the file for February 6. Or subscribe to Revolution Rock as a Podcast.

As a side note and for those keeping count, episode 588 of Revolution Rock was a repeat episode that originally aired back in January 2016. You can download that episode here and find the playlist in this post.

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