If you want, you can obviously skip straight to Lead Belly’s songs, but I have a few words about him. Lead Belly (born Huddie William Ledbetter, and alternately called “Leadbelly”) was a great blues and folk musician. In many ways, he personified Mike Seeger’s comment that American folk music is “all the music that fits between the cracks.” Lead Belly represented something raw and real with his music, and his rough life will forever be tied to his musical legacy.
Lead Belly’s Name and Legend
When I say a “rough life,” I mean Lead Belly experienced violence. He had actually murdered his cousin over a woman, which sent him to prison for some time. Thus, he was one of the first “outlaw” musicians. The New York Herald Tribune even wrote this about his arrival to perform: “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides.”
Some say Lead Belly is “the hard name of a harder man,” although, honestly, “Lead Belly” is probably just a permutation of his last name of Ledbetter. Either way, a common legend is that he was freed from prison after his talent was discovered by authorities. However, it’s likely he was to be released early from his sentence for good behavior anyway. Still, the idea of a convict singing his way to freedom is attractive, as is the general idea of taking a grotesque experience (like killing someone and being imprisoned) and making it into art and legend.
Blues has often dealt with anger, depression and assorted human flaws and hangups, which makes it an obvious precursor to rock and hip hop. Keep in mind also that, especially back then, a black man in general would have a hard time putting up with racist yokels. For a black man to achieve success back then is pretty significant, and a testament to just how much he must have loved music himself. Music is certainly one way to better one’s self, and others. It hardly seems like I’m overstating the case, either. While Lead Belly’s music probably doesn’t save lives outright, it may help give people an extra reason to keep living. That’s why the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame says it’s about
“honoring and preserving Louisiana’s greatest renewable natural resource.”
The Influence and Style of Lead Belly
Lead Belly was quite influential, but it’s always hard to say by how much. Violent reputation aside, his emergence into the music world probably shook things up and ruffled some feathers. While he’s not “The Father of the Blues” (that would be W.C. Handy), and he mostly just covered traditional songs, he definitely added his own spin to things and demonstrated the raw power essential to lasting music. In addition to influencing Nirvana (who famously played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged), Lead Belly’s versions of songs have inspired so many other established musicians that it’s ridiculous. In fact, one of the songs my dad selected for his funeral was The Animal’s “House of the Rising Sun,” which Lead Belly helped popularize before Eric Burdon and company made it into a hit.
Consider also the song “Midnight Special.” Although Lead Belly didn’t write it, he definitely helped to popularize it, along with many other traditional tunes. That one song has been covered by Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Johnny Rivers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis Presley, ABBA, Pete Seeger, Weavers, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Animals, Jay Farrar, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Davy Graham, Maria Muldauy, Rory Block, Grateful Dead, Gene Autry, Odetta, Billy Childish, Mungo Jerry, Paul King and Van Morrison (and that’s not everyone!).
Quite often, Lead Belly’s music has a vibe where you could easily clap your hands, stomp your feet, sing along or start shakin’. Now, being too clunky and apathetic, I personally have never been very physically expressive to music. Still, even I can definitely tap my toes to an old blues tune of Lead Belly’s calber. I could also imagine singing along to “Midnight Special” (either the Leadbelly or Creedence Clearwater versions). I also love the rawness to his a capella version of “Black Betty,” which is somehow more powerful than Ram Jam’s beefed up version. Their full band and loud guitars just aren’t on Lead Belly’s primal wavelength. Although traditional music is often considered hokey or old-fashioned, I don’t think Lead Belly’s style is ever totally out of style. It lives on for a reason.