the king of the twelve string: lead belly

July 27, 2012

With his 100th birthday, and the let’s-not-call-it-a-depression-because-that’s-depressing “economic downturn” there’s been a renewed interest in the music of folk legend Woody Guthrie this past year. But hardly anyone’s talking about one of Guthrie’s biggest influences and collaborators, Huddie Ledbetter. Better known to the world as that original punk rocker Lead Belly.

Words by Nathan Leigh

Each generation has their introduction to Lead Belly. For many of us it was Nirvana’s legendary performance of “In The Pines” (also known as “Black Girl” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) on their Unplugged in New York. For our older siblings, it was Zeppelin’s re-interpretation of “Gallis Pole” as “Gallow’s Pole.” For our parents (or grandparents…I’m pretty sure at least half the people reading this were born in the 90s. You have no idea how old that makes me feel…) it was Pete Seeger’s band The Weaver’s hit with “Good Night Irene.” And though each of these versions are great in their own right, there is an unmistakeable irony in his legacy being tied to white artists profiting off his songs when that was the major struggle of his career.

Lead Belly was already 45 when the folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan came to the notorious Angola Prison Farm to record folk songs for the Library of Congress. Though they’re usually described as having “discovered” Lead Belly, he had been a popular working musician since his teen years at that point. But Lead Belly’s early career was punctuated by prison sentences. He was generally friendly and well-liked, but firebrand Lead Belly was never one to back away from a fight. He was imprisoned once for the dubious charge of “carrying a pistol,” but then a second time for the slaying of a relative during a fight over a woman, and a final time in 1930 for stabbing a white man in self-defense during a fight at a party.
Lead Belly’s reputation spread out from the prison. He gave weekly performances, mixing his own original songs with regional folk and blues songs he had learned from fellow prisoners. He would prepare two versions of his more politically charged songs. In his song about the sinking of the Titanic, Lead Belly would leave out the verse about African American boxer Jack Johnson being denied passage when he performed it for the white prison staff.

During his second sentence in Texas, Governor Pat Morris Neff—a frequent attendant of Lead Belly’s Sunday performances—was swayed to issue a pardon after Lead Belly wrote him a song appealing to mercy in 1925. The same story would play out again in 1934 when the Lomaxes brought a petition backed by a recording of Lead Belly’s signature song “Good Night Irene” to Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen. In addition to a reputation for being tough as lead (one of the many origin myths of his stage name. Other possible options include a gunshot wound to the stomach, his ability to drink large amounts of moonshine, or most boringly and most likely just a tweaking of his last name. There is no scholarly evidence to support my theory that he was some sort of robot made mostly out of lead.), Lead Belly was hyped as the convict who sang his way out of prison.
After his release from prison, Lead Belly went on the road with John Lomax continuing to collect folk songs. Lead Belly was hired initially as driver and primary assistant, while Alan stayed back sick, but later became a performing partner when John gave lectures on folk music. The relationship between Lead Belly and Lomax was a complicated one and the subject of a lot of debate.
For an in depth dissection on their relationship check out:
It’s on a website run by Alan Lomax’s foundation, but it seems to handle the issue with a lot of detail and not much bias.
Financially, their relationship was pretty fair for the time (50/50 manager splits were the norm in the 30s because managers are bastards in every era regardless of race). But Lomax’s interest in Lead Belly was less as an artist and more as a living example of southern African American folk music. Though Lead Belly and Alan Lomax became close friends, John Lomax treated Lead Belly as an anthropological study. He was never flat-out racist, but he was paternalistic in everything.

It was John who encouraged Lead Belly to perform in prison clothes, and John who suggested Lead Belly sprinkle his performances with historical context of his songs. As a result, Lead Belly became less blues artist and more novelty act during his partnership with John Lomax. His history as an ex-convict was used in promoting concerts. To the media of the day, Lead Belly wasn’t a brilliant artist with a unique voice, he was an example of how the prison system could successfully reform a killer. (declaring our massively flawed prison system to be effective is another timeless American classic…) John Lomax treated Lead Belly as a lecture tool, but what Lead Belly sought was artistic and commercial success.
After only 6 months, the partnership began to fall apart. John Lomax didn’t believe Lead Belly could be trusted with the money he earned. The meager royalties earned from his recordings for ARC and the more substantial performance fees (about $20,000 in today’s money) were controlled tightly by John Lomax and ultimately only paid out to Lead Belly’s girlfriend Martha after their marriage in installments. The frustrated Lead Belly resented his arrangement with Lomax and the lack of control he had over his own career. He neither wanted to be the performer Lomax marketed him as, nor did he want to run his career the way Lomax wanted it run. During a two week lecture / concert tour of New England tensions increased, until at a stop in Boston Lead Belly pulled a knife on Lomax, demanding his money. A bitter lawsuit followed with Lead Belly winning the few hundred dollars in royalties he was still owed paid in one lump sum.

The couple returned to Louisiana, but the money dried up quickly. Destitute, Lead Belly and Martha returned to New York in 1936. He became a regular fixture at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, creating a massive stage revue featuring a cast of 65. The show flopped after bad reviews, but Lead Belly maintained aspirations of being a cross-over performer like his one-time opening act Cab Calloway. He continued to look for acting opportunities (because brilliant musicians always make brilliant actors. You know, like Prince in Purple Rain. Oh wait.) but his past as a convict proved an obstacle at every turn. In addition blues was quickly losing ground to jazz and swing in the pop markets. John Lomax’s insistence on playing up Lead Belly’s ex-convict-bluesman persona proved to be a major roadblock that would haunt his career. Throughout the rest of his career, Lead Belly would return on and off to that image; never fully able to shake it, and never fully sure if it was a good career move to do so.
Though mainstream success was always just out of reach, Lead Belly found a home in the leftist community in New York. Alan Lomax and Lead Belly had maintained their friendship, and Alan was quick to introduce Lead Belly to the progressive community. Lead Belly traded the ex-con image for a straight-laced suited pro. He became a regular in New York’s burgeoning folk scene. Starting in the late 30s, Lead Belly wrote some of his best protest songs. While he’d never shied away from addressing racial inequality in his songs, during Lead Belly’s protest era he mastered the art of articulating a social position through song. “Bourgeois Blues” is a masterpiece of social criticism about his treatment on a trip to D.C.

Following another stay in prison in 1939 for assault, Lead Belly befriended up and coming folk performers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (who it’s sort of hard to picture as a young impressionable singer having met—and marched in protest with!!!!—Pete at age 92, but I digress…). Both would later go on to declare Lead Belly to be one of their main influences. Woody and Lead Belly in particular enjoyed a close partnership performing together and collaborating. Some of Lead Belly’s most famous recordings come from an interview Woody conducted in 1940.
Throughout the 40’s, Lead Belly’s career stabilized to a degree. He never achieved the mainstream success he dreamed of, but he enjoyed a strong following, and was a successful regional live act. He continued recording new and old material through the decade cutting over a hundred sides for various labels. His final recording was in 1948. A set of 90 songs, some featuring his wife Martha, on the newly invented magnetic tape. The collection almost didn’t see light. Lead Belly died in 1949 of ALS (also known as Lou Gherig’s disease), and it wasn’t until after the Weavers hit with “Goodnight Irene” a year later, that Lead Belly finally achieved the mainstream success he had chased his whole life, and his final recordings were made public.
His legacy is hard to overstate. Nearly every artist of the last 60 years has covered a Lead Belly song at least once. Lead Belly’s trademarked 12-string guitar playing has influenced everything from modern country to metal. His vocal style has had a profound influence on Soul and RnB. His don’t-give-a-shit attitude lives on in punk. His criticisms of injustice and bitterness at the American prison system, are sadly as powerful and dangerous as they were 60 years ago. Though he spent the bulk of his career chasing a fame that never arrived, he is now regarded as one of the greatest American musicians of all time.