Today on the train I was listening to music with an uncomfortable sense of urgency, trying to keep up with the flash flood of new sound waves and feeling like I was about to drown. I went through the Big Boi album, the M.I.A. album, the Curren$y album. I got home and it hit me how much of my time is consumed by just trying to keep up with the new stuff. It’s not a bad thing. I enjoy it. But it can get stressful and made me want to go way back and post some shit that you’re not going to find on 20,000 other blogs this week.
I heard about Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in middle school via Kurt Cobain, who was a big fan and covered Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” during Nirvana’s famous Unplugged in New York set. I did a little investigating (I picked my nose, looked in the trash, then asked my parents), and found out my mom had an old tape of his. On the cover was a picture of Lead Belly in prison attire with a stone cold (since then I’ve never seen him any other way) look on his face. It’s the kind of look you only see on noble Indian chiefs and hardened ex-cons. Leadbelly was the latter. Aside from his musical ability and original style on the 12-string guitar, he was known for a very violent temperament.
I put the tape in my awesome battery operated boombox and hit play. I’m not going to pretend that as a 6th grader who listened to Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin that I understood what I was hearing, but I was fascinated. I will never forget the first time I heard Huddie Ledbetter’s voice, sprawled out next to the kitchen table with my ears to that all black, clumsy looking boombox.
Read on for the full story…
Leadbelly’s got a life story that matches the stoic look on his face. He was born on a plantation in Louisiana in 1888, although this year is disputed since in these early times the humans were simple minded, unorganized and inept.
Leadbelly had a short temper and a tendency to stab people. He was imprisoned multiple times for murder, knifing, assault, carrying weapons, etc. The first time he was arrested in Texas in 1916 he escaped and lived for a couple years under an alias. Then he went ahead and killed a relative during a fight over a girl (ah, the early 1900’s) and was sentenced to 7 to 35 years. He got off on year seven after writing this appealing tune:
Please, Governor Neff, Be good ‘n’ kind
Have mercy on my great long time…
I don’t see to save my soul
If I don’t get a pardon, try me on a parole…
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I’d wake up in the mornin’ and I’d set you free
Leadbelly was free until 1930 when he knifed another man and was again imprisoned in Louisiana. It was here that he was discovered by folklorists John and son Alan Lomax who had been traveling around collecting unrecorded ballads and folk songs using new recording technology. The pair found that southern prisons were a great source to find original folk music. They saw something special in Leadbelly and immediately began recording his songs. After serving four years for this attempted homicide charge, Leadbelly was pardoned after John and Alex took another personal appeal song to the governor (Weezy, get on that).
After his release from Louisiana prison he married his girlfriend Martha Promise, stabbed another guy (really?) and landed in jail for a short time, but when he wasn’t stabbing people and doing time he was enjoying success (although never making much money) touring in the US and Europe with the help of Alan Lomax. He became a staple in the New York City folk scene and died there in 1940 of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Leadbelly has been covered by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, The White Stripes, Nick Cave, The Doors, Van Morrison, and everyone who has ever played the blues.
Leadbelly – “Midnight Special”:
Leadbelly – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”