The Importance Of Being Leadbelly The Importance of Being Leadbelly Women and Liquor, that was his problem. My father got him to marry his girl, Martha, and that settled him for a while, a week or two. He called himself the twelve-string champion guitar player of the world, and I guess he was. I never heard anybody who could play it better. He loved being the best.
He wanted to stay the best as long as he was alive. -Alan Lomax, on Leadbelly Hes just a name on a lot of lists: the fourth or fifth name on a list of influences, never first, and all too often not mentioned at all where appropriate. Hes also an ex-convict, who was a sweet old man only while sober, which wasnt often enough. But by looking at the people he influenced, you can see that Huddie Ledbetter, Leadbelly, was redeemable no matter what he did aside from making music. The self-proclaimed King of the Twelve-String Guitar was more aptly the Godfather of the Twelve-String Gui-tar, being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as an influence.
He died poor and pitiful of a form of multiple sclerosis, and six months afterward his first hit song was a million-seller for another group. And every generation thereafter earned a new respect for a band that used one of his versions of a song. The importance of Leadbelly lies not in his legendary evil ways; it was in his great talent for making popular music. To make note of his importance, its important to note his discoverer, John Lomax. Lomax was on a constant search funded by the government to find its musical roots, rather to preserve what it could of them once the portable recording device was created. At the time Lomax met him, Ledbetter was serving a sen-tence at the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana for murder, the second long stretch in prison for him.
During his first run in prison, for assault in 1925 in Texas, he would play music for the guards to get lighter work-loads and eventually his music granted him an early release from the governor himself. It was in the Texas prison that Ledbetter allegedly earned his nickname, some say because he was able to eat anything, others said it was because he was the number one man in the number one gang in the Texas pen. Lomax found him doing much the same in the Louisiana prison, singing for lighter work and trying hard for a second pardon from a harder governor. Lomax saw great potential in Ledbetter and helped get him parole in 1933 then hired him as a protg of sorts. As much of a friend John Lomax was, he was also a hindrance, ex-ploiting Leadbelly as a singing prisoner, dressing him in convict or sharecropper clothes for photo sessions.
He immortalized Leadbelly and at the same time made a joke of him. For as much as Leadbelly would agree to go along with the clothes, he refused to actually talk about prison or about the ear-to-ear scar on his neck. For all the influence he had, Leadbelly was not without his influences. Prior to his arrest in Texas, he played the street corners with his mentor, Blind Lemon Jefferson for change, and they brought in small fortunes together for five years, each man gaining a lot of influence from the other. In the mid-1930s he worked and lived with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Woody Guthrie, each one giving and taking a bit.
And John Lomax was indeed quite a benefit for Leadbelly as far as credit is concerned. Ledbetter had a repertoire of well over 500 songs, the actual number was never quantified. Upon his discovery by Lo-max, he was the first blues man to record for the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1933, while still in the Angola Prison Farm. Ledbetter himself couldnt remember exactly which songs were his own as opposed to ones he made his own from someone else, and therefore his name is often attached to a lot of songs that perhaps werent originally his own. An example of this is popular childrens song of old, On Top of Old Smokey, where Leadbelly is listed as a songwriter, as is Lomax, who had a tendency to accept credit whenever humanly possible. Without John Lomax, there would be no Leadbelly today. For all of his ego, it should be noted that he deserves a lot of credit for all hes done for modern music, Ill even go so far as to say he deserves to be mentioned in mainstream history classes as a great historian.
It was Lomax whose interest in folk music really cultivated it as much as he preserved it. When John Lomax took Leadbelly to New York in 1934 and put him on stage in any place that would accept him, he started a revolution. And to his credit, he looked the other way when Leadbelly would panhandle his audience for their change during intermissions. Lomax published a book of 48 Leadbelly songs, along with some race-related commentary in 1936, a mutual bene-fit for both men. Lomax was generally a patient friend to the sometimes outright evil Leadbelly through most of the 1930s, but the friendship ended in the late thirties the night a drunken Ledbetter pulled a knife on John Lomax.
In retrospect, Alan Lomax didnt share his fathers idea of how legendary Leadbelly was, but he did make an effort to not sound bitter towards him, referring to him in his writings as naturally as he would his own father as a source for information and insight. Among the hundreds of recordings Ledbetter laid down for the Lomaxs cause, many were spirituals sang in prisons, a look at a life few would ever get to know. Admittedly, most of the songs were not writ-ten by Ledbetter, but had his own special guitar work behind it enough to garner w writing credit for him-self and Lomax. Many of these songs go back to the days of slavery, and some are everyday prison worker songs, designed to pass time. Leadbelly had the voice and talent with a guitar to make these songs avail-able even to those that may never know what its really like to be in a true state of trouble. One song Leadbelly laid down for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song was In New Or-leans, his own spin on House of the Rising Sun, written in 1928, ten years prior by Texas Alexander.
The Ledbetter spin was that he changed the perspective from the female perspective to the male point-of-view. While Bob Dylan (no stranger to seeing his songs made famous by others) and several others have recorded the song in Alexanders style, contemporarily credited to Dave Van Ronk, the song that the Ani-mals made their fortune on was lyric-for-lyric more of a match to Leadbellys version. The guitar accom-paniment to Leadbellys version was much more uptempo compared to most of the other versions, it actu-ally sounded like a song that comes out of New Orleans bar. Perhaps this came from the place itself, as Leadbelly spent some time playing on Fannin Street in New Orleans, and happened to catch an affliction from one of its ladies of ill repute. An interesting note to In New Orleans is that both father and son Lo-max have a writing credit for the Leadbelly version, Leadbelly does not. On December 6, 1949, Leadbelly died i …