L is for Leadbelly

The Wikipedia post for Leadbelly starts “Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949) was an iconic American folk and blues musician.” Truer words were never written. He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence.

Huddie spent time in and out of prison between 1915 and 1934, including for killing a man. It’s almost certain that he got his nickname Lead Belly, or Leadbelly, while behind bars. In 1933, “he was ‘discovered’ by folklorists John Lomax and his then 18-year-old son Alan Lomax during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm. Deeply impressed by his vibrant tenor voice and huge repertoire, they recorded him on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress.”

Possibly his best known song was Goodnight, Irene; LISTEN to his take. The year after he died, The Weavers recorded a version [LISTEN] which “first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on June 30, 1950 and lasted 25 weeks on the chart, peaking at #1. The Weavers’ enormous success inspired many other artists to release their own versions of the song, many of which were themselves commercially successful.” When my father would come to my elementary school to sing, he’d always perform the song, causing my classmates to assume that I had a crush on the girl in my class named Irene – I did not – and that I had put my father up to it – I had not.

Here is Yahoo’s list of the ten best songs by Lead Belly:

10. Ain’t It a Shame
9. Blood Done Signed My Name
8. Gallis Pole – LISTEN HERE or HERE. You may be familiar with the cover, Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin [LISTEN, I hope].
7. Midnight Special – LISTEN. A live cover by Creedence Clearwater Revival [LISTEN]
6. Bourgeois Blues – LISTEN HERE or HERE. LISTEN to a live cover by Taj Mahal
5. He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word – LISTEN
4. On a Monday – LISTEN HERE or HERE
3. In New Orleans (House of the Rising Sun) – LISTEN. You probably know the version by the Animals [LISTEN]
2. Black Betty – LISTEN
1. Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (In the Pines) – LISTEN. It was later covered by Nirvana.

My favorite song performed by Leadbelly, though, is We’re in the Same Boat, Brother [LISTEN]. “And if you shake one end, you’re gonna rock the other.”

Here are some more lyrics:

The Lord looked down from his holy place
Said Lordy me, what a sea of space
What a spot to launch the human race
So he built him a boat with a mixed-up crew,
With eyes of Black and Brown and Blue.
So that’s how come that you and I
Got just one world and just one sky.

Leadbelly songs that have been covered

ABC Wednesday – Round 12


25 thoughts on “L is for Leadbelly

  1. I have loved his music for a long time. I have a tape of old Leadbelly recordings which I like a lot. I’ll have to dig it up because I haven’t listened to it in a long time. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  2. Used to go ice skating to CCR music! Loved them and one of my g’friends went out with John Fogarty a few times. Also, my late husband used to play and sing “House of the Rising Sun” for me lots, especially while sitting by the campfire during our summers at Shuswap Lake (great memories). Love the lyrics to “Same Boat” song!

    abcw team

  3. Have enjoyed and heard that song “Irene” for years, but your History Lesson on Old Leadbelly was quite interesting and enlightening. Thanks. Roger, are you SURE you didn’t have a crush on Irene…HaHa

  4. a great talent! my love for blues music started in the 80’s–there was DJ who called himself Midnight Cowboy who played blues after midnight until 4 am. i used to call the radio station to ask Midnight Cowboy about the artists he played.:p blues is not a very popular genre here, we don’t even have a blues station but we have quite good blues musicians.

    i thought Midnight Special is a CCR original.:p

  5. This was a really fascinating post! I learned something! Our parents were so familiar with these songs, and I am sure they heard his recordings. I love Blues. It’s a shame he was in prison for killing a man….kind’ve the object of a later artist’s (Johnny Cash) song, Folsom Prison! I really enjoyed reading about him, and listening to some of the songs he recorded.

  6. I never heard of this singer ! But I can easily imagine that he had a hard life being born in 1888 and black ! So many genius only became famous after they died !

  7. The House of the Rising Sun was my late brother’s favorite song. His widow played the Animals’ version softly in the background during calling hours. It was so fitting for my younger “bubby”.
    I think my mom introduced me to Lead Belly; I think that I didn’t know his real name.
    great choice for ‘l’!

  8. I recognized some of the songs – loved the versions you shared – but I don’t remember him. Thanks for the great info.

  9. Rog, I love your vast knowledge of music, musicians, and other information the librarian in you shares with us! I would never have known anything about any of what you have posted, so thank you once again!

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