It could be argued that Huddie Ledbetter, also known to the world as Leadbelly, was one of the most influential musicians of all time. While his songs, at the time of his death, were not number one sellers or tearing up the R&B charts, his prolific songwriting covered several different scopes, topics, and genres, which made it very easy for artists to cover his songs for decades to follow.
Leadbelly learned music by traveling throughout Texas with Blind Lemon Jefferson. He could play mandolin, harmonica, piano, accordion, and violin but was most associated with the twelve-string guitar. He went to jail twice for murder and both times was rumored to have been paroled by playing music for the governor or the warden. He achieved fame by riding with Alan and John Lomax and, in those travels, worked to preserve early black music for all of history.
Without Leadbelly’s life, we would not have the versions of the following songs:
Note: While I am fully aware that Lead Belly did not author or originally record all of the following songs, often I have found that his recording is the most popular. If at any point someone feels that I am neglecting the original songwriter or recording artist, please feel free to submit a correction.
Not only is this one of the greatest songs for quitting your job, but this work song has seen so many different versions that it is sometimes hard to follow its descendants. Many versions, like Big Bill’s, manages to stay true to the original. However others have recorded it as “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Take it to the Captain,” and even Johnny Cash’s “Tell Him I’m Gone.”
This song gets a surprising amount of attention from non-Southerners, which is something I would like someone to explore. Creedence Clearwater Revival can be forgiven of course, since they ripped their entire act from Dixie. However Harry Belafonte, The Beach Boys, and the Irish punk/folk group The Pogues had as much fun with it as did Elvis, The Carter Sisters and Webb Pierce.
It has been argued that the British Invasion never would have happened had it not been for Leadbelly, Chuck Berry and the blues from the South. No Muddy Waters, then no Rolling Stones; no Jerry Lee Lewis, then no Beatles. While many bluesmen from the South struggled to make ends meet, they were becoming immortalized and even deified across the Atlantic. It took Americans more than fifty years to realize what the British did: Southern blues in America rules!
What a great song to both end a set and to close a bar or restaurant! This number has been covered by scores of artists, from Sinatra, Michelle Shocked, Deer Tick, and even Jimi Hendrix. The lyrics throughout the years had been changed to swap controversial subjects, but the despair from the original is the best as the man struggles with mortality after the loss of his blessed Irene.
My favorite right now: John McKelvey
How many of you knew that Johnny Cash hosted a variety show from 1969-1971? He did and he featured not only his own music, but showcased a wide array of musicians from Stevie Wonder to Bob Dylan, Tammy Wynette and even Louis Armstrong. This show was so compelling, it even inspired a successful revue of its ownout in North Carolina. But one of the ways Johnny Cash liked to end that show was with his own version of Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line” and I sincerely thank him for that.
My favorite right now: Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
Here is one of the songs that blurs the line of Leadbelly’s influence. Ma Rainey actually recorded the first version of this song nearly ten years before Leadbelly, but it was very common in these days for a song to make its way through different artists and regions and often, the result was a number that didn’t reflect the original at all. Leadbelly’s version of this song articulates this point quite well. Listen to Ma Rainey’s version, then Leadbelly’s, then the song by the Animals and you will witness the evolution of a rock and blues standard.
What does it say about a song when it is best known for not one iconic scene in movie history, but two? Just as Jimmie Rodgers was influenced by his time on the railroads, Leadbelly’s primary influence was on the prison chain gang and this is the archetypical prison and field work song.
It has been argued that this song, much like “See See Rider” did not belong to Lead Belly, but rather to an Appalachian artist (probably Dock Walsh…) who wrote “In The Pines.” However, thanks to Nirvana’s appearance on MTV Unplugged, there will never be any doubt as to who truly owns this song. If you watch no other video, make sure you watch Cobain’s performance of this riveting and haunting Lead Belly song.
BUT TO FURTHER YOUR EDUCATION, PLEASE LISTEN TO LEAD BELLY ORIGINALS TODAY. This man is one of the greatest singers to come from American soil and the true legacy of the Lomaxes is their preservation of his music. We came this close to losing it forever…
But don’t take my word for it. Y’all come see me at reverenderyk.blogspot.com
DID I MISS ANY? PLEASE THROW THOSE AND ALL YOUR VITRIOLIC COMMENTS BELOW!!!