Twelve String King: Leadbelly and the Roots of American Folk Music

There was something nostalgic about driving down dusty California roads, with Ram Jam’s 1977 cover of “Black Betty” rattling the speakers of the old green pick-up. “No one can do it like Lead Belly”, my host and driver, Joe, emphasised, jabbing the air with his cigarette. “Lead Belly was the greatest recorded musician in America.” This was a huge pedestal to place one man on, but I knew that Joe was right. No single artist played as big of a part in the roots of American recorded music as Huddie William Ledbetter – known, as his tombstone reads, as Lead Belly.

Huddie William Ledbetter was probably born in 1888, but sources also cite his birth date as January 23rd, 1889. His birth date wasn’t the only fact of his life to elude verification. Ledbetter the man and Lead Belly the myth were two lives that only sometimes intertwined in truth. By 1903, Lead Belly was performing in the red-light districts of St. Paul’s Bottom. He was known for having a violent temper, and in singing about racial issues in a racially fraught world.

His violent temper landed him in prison several times, on charges ranging form “carrying a pistol” (he was sentenced to a chain gang from which he escaped) to homicide. It was during his homicide term at Angola Prison Farm that the man Ledbetter became the myth Lead Belly. In 1933, Josh and Alan Lomax discovered Ledbetter during the first ever music recording expedition sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies and Library of Congress. On a series of portable aluminium discs, father and son Lomax recorded Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene”. Legend states that Lead Belly’s pleading for early release on the other side of the recording hastened the Louisiana Governor’s decision to release Lead Belly from
prison. (However, prison officials say he was on the path to release for good behaviour.)

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Lead Belly – “Goodnight, Irene”

It was also in prison that Ledbetter became Lead Belly in the literal sense of his name. Some say it was a play on his surname or a reference to his physical strength. Others insist it was due to the amount of times he was shot in the stomach, and some say it was all because of his ability to drink moonshine without flinching. However, none of these traits would protect Lead Belly from the harsh reality of the Great Depression. Jobless, he turned to Lomax Sr., who took him on as driver for the American folk music recording tour. It didn’t take long for Lead Belly to begin recording again, sending his fame skyrocketing.

Lead Belly’s outspoken music lent him to be a favourite amongst leftist folk music lovers. He sang about the real world as he saw it – through women, alcohol and racism. He sang about America – through cowboys, prison, sailors, cattle herding, and dancing. He sang about history –through Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes. There was no subject too taboo for Lead Belly. But his violent temper constantly overshadowed his success, and he landed in prison in Manhattan in 1939. Upon release, he was granted a regular radio show and eventually a European tour, bringing American folk music abroad. However, he fell ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease and died before the tour was completed.

Lead Belly’s life was a constant dichotomy of beautiful folk and blues, and violent alcoholism and temperament. Life Magazine said it, horrifically and unacceptably, in their 1937 article titled “Lead Belly – Bad N****r Makes Good Minstrel”. But perhaps part of why we love Lead Belly is because of his violent temper – his connection to the American nostalgia of chain gangs and railroad workers. He represents both the good anti-racist values of the leftist folkie, and the pseudo-homicidal tendencies of the Wild West. Modern day Lead Bellies are still scattered throughout the country, driving pick-up trucks and listening to good ol’ folk music. They embody the very roots of American history, and their love of Lead Belly continues to honour his memory, his mythology, and his music.

The Lead Belly Legacy

“Goodnight, Irene” – Frank Sinatra (& Jo Stratford)

Frank Sinatra is undoubtedly one of the most well known voices in American music. In his own version of “Goodnight, Irene”, Sinatra lauds Lead Belly as being a man whose talent was cut too short. Having known Lead Belly personally, Sinatra was eager to pay tribute to the man who taught him this song. Sinatra’s “Goodnight, Irene” features several singers, and is more of a tribute than an actual stand-alone song. That being said, the conglomerate of voices adds a distinct melancholy, one that Sinatra seemed to embody mourning Lead Belly’s premature passing.

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Frank Sinatra & Jo Stafford – “Goodnight, Irene”

“Goodnight, Irene” – Lead Belly

Lead Belly’s voice in “Goodnight, Irene” winds its way slowly through each word, writing a sad story to each lyric. “Goodnight, Irene” was also the recording that the Lomax father and son duo recorded during Lead Belly’s incarceration in Louisiana for homicide. It’s steeped in more myth and history than any other version, and his staple guitar playing (simple and poignant) highlights the depressed nature of the song’s protagonist.

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Lead Belly – “Goodnight, Irene”

“Pick a Bale of Cotton” – ABBA

I bet you weren’t expecting that one, were you? ABBA’s rendition of “Pick a Bale of Cotton” has no resemblance to the original, save in the words – which, being sung by four blonde Swedes, doesn’t have the same impact. However, the harmonies and energy add an unexpected and modern dynamic to the traditional fast-folk melody of the original. Suddenly, you can see what Lead Belly’s music would have been like if injected intravenously with sugar. There is nothing stranger than equating a song about field workers with pop superstars.

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ABBA – “Pick A Bale Of Cotton”

“Pick a Bale of Cotton” – Lead Belly

This is typical Lead Belly. The song itself is simple and repetitive evoking the slave trade in a way that makes it impossible to forget. Of course, the joyous music that came out of that imprisonment cannot be emulated, and “Pick a Bale of Cotton” is the perfect example of that. The frenzied guitar playing is constantly on the brink of falling apart, exploding in a chaos of sound – but Lead Belly’s expertise keeps it tight and perfect through to the end.

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Lead Belly – “Pick A Bale Of Cotton” (Live)

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – Nirvana

Perhaps one of the most famous Lead Belly covers, Nirvana’s version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” appeared on their MTV Unplugged album. Nirvana, already close to the apex of world wide stardom, were starting to unravel, and Cobain would kill himself not too long after Unplugged was released. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” has the additional haunting effect of a cello, which when combined with Cobain’s distinct, visceral wail, is just as shiver inducing as Lead Belly’s original. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” ranks as one of the top Lead Belly covers, unique enough while honouring the very soul of the original.

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NIrvana – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – Lead Belly

In contrast to “Goodnight, Irene”, Lead Belly’s voice in “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” has a velvety softness to it. It retains the same melancholy as present in most of the sad American folk songs, but Lead Belly’s depth is unmistakably unique. His interjecting spoken-word lyrics recreate the dynamic of dialogue, reminiscent of the elderly, speaking out loud to their dearly departed loved ones, never bothering to wait for a response. The timbre of Lead Belly’s crooning sends shivers down your spine that speak of his girls’ shivering the whole night through.

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Lead Belly – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

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