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
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
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?
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