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Friday, March 19, 2010
Lead Belly - Where Did You Sleep Last Night
I know I've been off of blogging for a while. I was busy trying to get my new computer in shape,and change my internet service provider who wasn't all that great-the service I had to the web was on and off. More off than on! Well, I was busy listening to Lead Belly,King of the 12- string guitar, and reading this excellent book that's pictured below. I'm still not finished reading it, and know I don't know everything about Lead Belly,but I'm gathering some knowledge little by little. It seems the old story is true,Lead Belly aka Huddie Leadbetter, did commit a crime that landed him in jail,and yes he sang for the warden and Texas Governor Pat Neff ,and was pardoned.And if it wasn't for John & Alan Lomax the father and son folk music historians we'd never know about Lead Belly. John Lomax,the father went through the south and many other states recording the music in the field,he was a collector and always used the music and knowledge of his subjects strictly for educational purposes. Why is Lead Belly so important to Mojo Repair Shop? Well, I'm always on a mission to know where music came from,and I often stumble over the fact that so much music, by unknown and well known musicians is often exploited. It seems in order to be known,there's no way around it, musicians are going to be exploited. Whether they get their music recorded and played on the radio,or someone like John Lomax had to bring the music to the people in order to hear the real thing. And while reading, it seemed like Lead Belly was exploited. But then again, we'd never know about the music...the rich songs he recorded like Midnight Special, Black Betty, and making Goodnight Irene into a genuine folk song that was covered by hundreds of other artists. And these are but a few songs. Don't forget Where Did You Sleep Last Night,an incredibly haunting song...and that's just a small portion of the songs he made. Huddie Leadbetter was born just outside of Mooringsport Louisiana on January 20, 1888 or possibly January 29th 1889. So he's one of the oldest blues folk-artists I've ever heard. Huddie started playing the guitar,a typical Stella model that was fairly easy to buy through the Sears Catalog. (Thank you Sears for making guitars available cheap for young people to buy and learn to play!) Huddie started playing the guitar at 13 years old,and like most farm raised African-Americans from the south,playing the guitar for a few pennies or working on a farm from sun-up to sun-down for the same few pennies-which one would you prefer? Well, the guitar! Well it was obvious which direction he'd rather take. The blues really hadn't been found or invented yet,so Huddie learned and played from other musicians he saw. Records were available but only to people who had money. (You could buy a table top player for about 20 dollars) And at that time that was a lot of money. So, he had in fact learned how to play strictly from other musicians and singers in the delta. Music that is passed down in person, not from a radio or a record. As Huddie grew older, he busked the streets of Shreveport,and Dallas with Blind Lemon Jefferson. All he knew was farming and playing the guitar. He played guitar on and off, but mostly did a lot of farming in the meantime. Lead Belly's temper got the best of him around 1917 when he killed a man, and was sentenced to the state pen in Huntsville for 30 years. Music became his salvation, and he was pardoned in 1925. 5 years later, Huddie found himself in more trouble with the law, and was convicted of assault with intent to murder, the incorrigible Huddie served his time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Meanwhile legendary musicologist John Lomax and his son,Alan were driving all over the south,with their trunk weighed down with primitive recording equipment, searching for music for the Library of Congress. The pair made "field recordings" anywhere, that was quiet, and recorded musicians on the spot. At a prison farm or literally in a field. John Lomax entered Lead Belly's life in 1933, when they came to Angola in search of musicians to record some folk songs. When they heard Lead Belly sing and play they hit the mother-load. The Lomaxes asked Louisiana Governor O.K Allen to pardon Huddie ,and he was freed and the rest is history. Well... sort of. John and Alan Lomax brought Lead Belly's music to record and radio. And they took Lead Belly to New York to perform, and show people his talent. Lead Belly played everywhere, mostly on the college circuit for very little money. It seems John Lomax didn't really want Huddie to go off by himself much, and get into trouble, so he kept him near and paid him very little money-and pretty much exploited his talents. It helped Leadbelly's music be known, on one hand,but on the other hand, he was close to a circus act. Often billed and filmed as the ex-con in comic exaggeration in prison garb, serenading John Lomax and his fellow prison inmates. Does this sound anything like a Hollywood movie? Just replace Huddie Ledbetter with King Kong! Huddie performed, wrote, and played all the songs he knew,or songs passed on to him through listening. He was also cleaver about making up songs on the spot. His talent lies in hearing the rich past of folk songs, and blues, and making them into his own songs. Instead you see a film footage scene of John Lomax,busy typing away,while Huddie lumbers through the door,wearing farmer coveralls,his faithful guitar around his neck,and announces: "Boss, here I is! I came here to play and to be your man. I've got to work for you the rest of my life.You got me out of that Louisiana pen". The crusty Lomax replies"You can't work for me.You're a mean boy.You killed two men". But Lead Belly beseeches him "Please Boss,take me with you!" Won over by such a magnanimous display,Lomax acquiesces. "Thank you sir boss,Thank you! I'll drive you all over the United States and I'll be your man". Well, it helped and didn't help the African American race. That's what I struggle with. It just stinks of stupid. You know, if John Lomax didn't hear Huddie sing, we'd never know about him,and on the other hand, it was great to at least promote him and his music so, he could have a career, because he -Huddie was able to latter record for ARC and Banner Records,as well as The Library of Congress. But the way it was all done?! It just seems like whites exploiting black. This would be a common thing as time goes on in the music business...but then again, any and all musicians were exploited by their labels...what's changed? Practically nothing. Well, Huddie's music is there to listen to, and it inspired a great bunch of people who made folk music as it is today (Woody Guthrie) and at least inspired Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee,and maybe paved the way for other black performers to get their due. So I guess we have to sometimes regard the past as the past,and reap what you can from the music. So now I gather, all of my Lead Belly music for you here...Hope you dig it as much as I did! Lead Belly Where Did You Sleep Last Night