Leadbelly died 60 years ago today. Here's his entry in my book The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia ( a name in capital letters mean there's an entry on this person too) but if this were being written now it would add that there is a recent Leadbelly biography, co-compiled by John Reynolds - the man who rescued the classic shot of Blind Willie McTell from a pile of trash back at the beginning of the 1960s, and without whom we simply would not have that crucial photograph of Willie in his prime. Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures by Tiny Robinson and John Reynolds, was first published in Germany in 2007 and then in the UK in April 2008. (You'll find it in the "Recommended" section of the right-hand column of this blog.) But here's the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia entry:
Leadbelly [1888 - 1949]
Huddie Ledbetter was born at Mooringsport, near Shiloh, Louisiana on January 21, 1888 and learnt to play accordion, piano, harmonica and then guitar. By the age of 15 he was a father of two with a police record after his involvement in a shooting, and was singing in the red-light district of Shreveport. Moving to Dallas, Texas he met and learnt songs from BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON and moved onto the 12-string guitar, of which he became an almost incomparable master (perhaps only equalled by BLIND WILLIE McTELL) with a distinctively strong rhythmic style.
He spent nearly as much time in prison as busking on the streets, and when the folklorist John A. Lomax and his then-teenage son ALAN LOMAX encountered him in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola in July 1933, he already had two pardons behind him (he had killed a man in Texas in 1917) and was now serving what was supposed to be another 30-sentence, but after proving an incomparable source of black folksong and 19th century repertoire on the field recordings he made for the Lomaxes for the Library of Congress, they obtained his pardon once again and this time set him to work as their chauffeur and recording assistant. After this, he travelled with them on many field trips but was also presented as a performer to folksong societies and in progressive East Coast establishment society, becoming in the 1940s part of a circle of left-wing folk enthusiasts and musicians (as you can tell by the very title ‘The Bourgeois Blues’) that included WOODY GUTHRIE, SONNY TERRY & BROWNIE McGHEE, Alan Lomax and PETE SEEGER. In Tony Russell’s words, ‘Leadbelly the performer and the Leadbelly songbook are twin peaks on the map of American music. His enormous repertoire has no parallel in black folksong. He sang everything, ballads and blues-ballads, dance songs and children’s rhymes, memories of minstrelsy and freshly made songs about his own rapidly changing circumstances. To his white audiences he seemed a mythic figure, a lone carrier of all-but-lost messages from black worlds of field and prison farm.’
As this implies, little of his repertoire was really the blues, though ‘Good Morning Blues’ and ‘The Bourgeois Blues’ are prized items. In the mid-1940s he tried to ‘make it’ in Hollywood but was unsuccessful and returned to live in New York by 1947, making his one foreign trip in 1949 - to Paris - before dying in New York City that December 6, of a form of motor neurone disease termed Lou Gehrig’s disease. No sooner was he dead than Pete Seeger’s goody-goody group the Weavers had a no.1 hit single with a revoltingly twee version of a song he’d refashioned from a 19th century minstrel number, ‘Goodnight Irene’. (The other Weavers were Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman; Lee Hays is the one who looked, back then, exactly like the 2005 British Home Secretary, Charles Clarke.) By the end of the 1950s we were all familiar with Leadbelly songs: the UK’s father of skiffle, Lonnie Donegan, signalled his 1956 shift from ‘jazz’ to ‘rock’n’roll’ with a hit version of ‘Rock Island Line’, while between them, skiffle and the Folk Revival ensured the continued circulation of ‘Boll Weevil’ (of which Leadbelly’s own recording is soaringly the best), ‘Midnight Special’, ‘Pick a Bale O’ Cotton’, ‘Bring Me A Li’l Water Silvy’, ‘Take A Whiff On Me’ (as ‘Have A Drink On Me’ by Mr. Donegan) and ‘Cotton Fields’.
‘Midnight Special’ was the song on which Dylan had played harmonica behind HARRY BELAFONTE in February 1962, shortly ahead of the release of his own début album; but there is a longer connecting thread between Leadbelly and Dylan’s work than that, and beyond the fact of Leadbelly’s repertoire having both informed the understanding of, and permeated so thoroughly into, the common currency of the Folk Revival - such that, for instance, Dylan was performing ‘Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos (Go Down Old Hannah)’ at the Gaslight Café in October 1962; that when Dylan recorded a version of ‘Milk Cow Blues’ in 1962, he used part of Kokomo Arnold’s lyric, part of ELVIS PRESLEY’s, part of ROBERT JOHNSON’s ‘Milkcow’s Calf Blues’ and part of Leadbelly’s ‘Good Morning Blues’; and that he and HAPPY TRAUM were performing ‘Keep Your Hands Off Her’ in February 1963.
First, it was a set of Leadbelly 78rpm records, given to Dylan as a gift before he left Hibbing, that proved his first revelatory direct initiation into the pre-war black repertoire. He might well have proved the first person Dylan heard who ‘talked his way into a song’, in ROBERT SHELTON’s phrase, as he did duly did himself on his first album.
The Leadbelly favourite ‘Pig Meat Mama’ offers a vivacious demonstration of something we’re likely to think still more Dylanesque. That is, given an ostentatious rhyme, he delivers it with a sly knowingness which, far from downplaying it, milks its comic extravagance to the full, by throwing in a pause just long enough to draw attention to itself immediately ahead of the clamorous rhyme. In this song from 1935, Leadbelly gives us ‘...Louisiana / ...Texacana / ...a girl named [pause] Silvana!’ This is a way of writing and delivering lines that we know well from many Dylan recordings, such as the ‘Angelina’ rhymes in the 1981 song of that name, the risky comedy of ‘subpoena’ being the one that pushes this furthest. It’s the same glee that tops ‘the castle honey’ with ‘El [pause] Paso honey’ in the superb 1966 outtake ‘She’s Your Lover Now’. (Actually, Silvana might not have struck Leadbelly as an especially attention-grabbing name: he had an adopted sister called Australia.)
Leadbelly’s breadth of repertoire is used by Dylan in a quite different way, too. In a speech onstage at the Fox-Warfield Theatre in San Francisco in 1980, Dylan tells the audience this, about Leadbelly switching from prison songs to children’s songs - offering it as a parable about his own switch from secular to Christian songs: ‘He made lots of records there [in New York]. At first he was just doing prison songs, and stuff like that.... He’d been out of prison for some time when he decided to do children’s songs. And people said “Oh my! Did Leadbelly change?”.... But he didn’t change. He was the same man.’
[Leadbelly: ‘Good Morning Blues’, NY 15 Jun 1940 or summer 1943; ‘The Bourgeois Blues’, NY 1 Apr 1939; ‘Irene’, Angola LA, 16-20 Jul 1933 & 1 Jul 1934, & Wilton CT, 20 Jan 1935; ‘Rock Island Line’, Washington D.C., 22 Jun 1937, NY, Jan 1942 & (with the Golden Gate Quartet) NY, 15 Jun 1940; ‘Boll Weevil’, Shreveport LA, prob. Oct 1934, Wilton CT, Feb 1935 & NY, 19 Jun 1940; ‘The Boll Weevil’, NY 1 Apr 1939; ‘Midnight Special’, Angola LA, 1 Jul 1934, Wilton CT, Feb 1935 & (w Golden Gate Quartet) NY, 15 Jun 1940; ‘Pick A Bale A’Cotton’, NY 25 Jan 1935; ‘Pick A Bale O’ Cotton’, Wilton CT, Mar 1935; ‘Pick A Bale Of Cotton’ (w Golden Gate Quartet), NY, 15 Jun 1940; ‘Bring Me A Li’l Water Silvy’, Wilton, Mar 1935; ‘Bring Me Lil Water Silvy’, NY, late 1943; ‘Honey Take A Whiff On Me’, Angola 16-20 Jul 1933; ‘Take A Whiff On Me’, Angola, prob. 1 Jul 1934 & Wilton, 1 Feb 1935; ‘Baby Take A Whiff On Me’, NY, 25 Jan 1935; ‘Go Down, Old Hannah’, Wilton, Mar 1935; ‘Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well No Mo’/‘Go Down Old Hannah’, NY 1 Apr 1939; ‘Pig Meat Mama’, NY, 25 Mar 35; Negro Folk Songs For Young People”, Folkways FC 7533, NY, c.1962; a good general selection of his work is CD-reissued Leadbelly: King Of The Twelve-String Guitar, Columbia Roots N’ Blues Series 467893 4, NY, 1991.
Dylan on Leadbelly & children’s songs, San Francisco, 12 Nov 1980, quoted from ‘Bob Dylan’s Leadbelly Parable’, in Michael Gray & John Bauldie, eds., All Across The Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook, London: W.H. Allen, 1987. Tony Russell, ‘Leadbelly’, From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, London: Aurum Press, 1997, p.38. Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, London: Penguine edn, 1987, p.119.]