Lead Belly – Good Morning Blues


Lead Belly – Good Morning Blues
Lead Belly - Good Morning Blues
Lead Belly – Good Morning Blues


Huddie William Ledbetter   (January 20, 1889 – December 6, 1949) was an American folk and blues musician notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the folk standards he introduced. He is best known as Lead Belly. Though many releases list him as “Leadbelly”, he himself wrote it as “Lead Belly”, which is also the spelling on his tombstone and the spelling used by the Lead Belly Foundation.
Lead Belly usually played a twelve-string guitar, but he also played the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and “windjammer” (diatonic accordion). In some of his recordings he sang while clapping his hands or stomping his foot.
Lead Belly’s songs covered a wide range, including gospel music; blues about women, liquor, prison life, and racism; and folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding, and dancing. He also wrote songs about people in the news, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, Jack Johnson, the Scottsboro Boys and Howard Hughes.



LEAD BELLY – Good Morning Blues
Daddy I’m Coming Back To You
Looky Looky Younder/Black Betty Yellow Womens Door Bells (On A Monday)
The Bourgeois Blues
Pick A Bale Of Cotton
Midnight Special
Alabama Bound
Rock Island Line


Good Morning Blues


Leaving Blues


Tred Cross Store Blues
Easy Rider
New York City


Worried Blues


Don’t You Love Your Daddy No More
On A Monday


[Good Night] Irene
Where Did You Sleep Last Night
In New Orleans
I’ve A Pretty Flowers


Lead Belly – “Outskirts of Town”
Blind Lemon (Memorial Record)


Mothers Blues (Little Children Blues)


Lead Belly - Good Morning Blues
Lead Belly – Good Morning Blues


 Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the world as “Lead Belly”, survived a life that included brutalizing poverty and long stretches in prison to become an emblematic folk singer and musician.
 He is renowned for his songs – the best known of which include “Rock Island Line,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “The Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields” – as well as his prowess on the 12-string guitar. In his sixty-plus years, he essentially lived two distinctly different lives: first, as a field worker, blues singer, rambling man and prisoner in the rural South; second, as a city-dwelling folksinger, performer and recording artist in the urban North. It was, however, not until shortly after Lead Belly’s death that a broader public came to know his songs and the mythic outline of his life.
 Born circa 1885 in rural northwest Louisiana, Lead Belly rambled across the Deep South from the age of 16. While working in the fields, he absorbed a vast repertoire of songs and styles. He mastered primordial blues, spirituals, reels, cowboy songs, folk ballads and prison hollers. In 1917, Lead Belly served as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “lead boy” – i.e., his guide, companion and protégé – on the streets of Dallas. A man possessed with a hot temper and enormous strength, Lead Belly spent his share of time in Southern prisons. Convicted on charges of murder (1917) and attempted murder (1930), Lead Belly literally sang his way to freedom, receiving pardons from the governors of Texas and Louisiana. The second of his releases was largely obtained through the intervention of John and Alan Lomax, who first heard Lead Belly at Angola State Prison while recording indigenous Southern musicians for the Library of Congress.
Lead Belly - Good Morning Blues
Lead Belly – Good Morning Blues


 Lead Belly subsequently moved to New York, where he worked as a chauffeur (for John Lomax) and occasional performer. During the last 15 years of his life, he found an appreciative new audience in the leftist folk community, befriending the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Much like Guthrie, he performed for political rallies and labor unions in his later years. His keening, high-pitched vocals and powerful, percussive guitar playing commanded attention, and he became known as “the King of the Twelve-String Guitar.” Lead Belly recorded for a variety of labels, including Folkways, and performed tirelessly, though still subsisting in relative poverty, until his death in 1949 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Ironically, the Weavers sold 2 million copies of their recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” shortly after his death. “It’s one more case of black music being made famous by white people,” Pete Seeger, one of the Weavers, said in 1988, the year of Lead Belly’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s a pure tragedy he didn’t live another six months, because all his dreams as a performer would have come true.”


The Incomparable Legacy of Lead Belly


A new Smithsonian Folkways compilation and a Smithsonian Channel show highlight the seminal blues man of the century
“If you asked ten people in the street if they knew who Lead Belly was,” Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place says, “eight wouldn’t know.”
Chances are, though, they’d know many of Lead Belly songs that have been picked up by others. Chief among them: “Goodnight Irene,” an American standard made a No. 1 hit by The Weavers in 1950, one year after the death of the blues man who was first to record it, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.
 But the roster also includes “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the spooky song that capped Nirvana’s Grammy winning No. 1 “Unplugged in New York” album in 1994 that sold 5 million copies.
 And in between? “Rock Island Line,” recorded by both Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Cash; “House of the Rising Sun,” made a No. 1 hit by the Animals; “Cotton Fields,” sung by Odetta but also the Beach Boys; “Gallows Pole,” as interpreted by Led Zeppelin and “Midnight Special” recorded by Credence Clearwater Revival and a host of others.

Lead Belly - Good Morning Blues
Lead Belly – Good Morning Blues
 Also on the list is “Black Betty,” known to many as a hard-hitting 1977 rock song by Ram Jam that became a sports arena chant and has been covered by Tom Jones.
 Few of its fan would realize the origins of that hit as a prison work song, in which its relentless “bam de lam” is meant to simulate the sound of the ax hitting wood, says Place, who co-produced a five-disc boxed set on Lead Belly’s recordings out this week.
 John and Alan Lomax, the father and son team of musicologists who recorded prison songs and found Lead Belly chief among its voices in 1933, wrote that “Black Betty” itself referred to a whip, though other prisoners have said it was slang for their transfer wagon.
 Either way, it’s an indication of how much the songs of Lead Belly became ingrained into the culture even if audiences aren’t aware of their origins.
 Today, 127 years after his birth, and 66 years after his death, there is an effort to change that.
 On Feb. 23, the Smithsonian Channel will debut a documentary about the twice-jailed singer who became so influential to music, “Legend of Lead Belly,” including striking color footage of him singing in a cotton field and lauditory comments from Roger McGuinn, Robby Krieger, Judy Collins and Van Morrison, who just says “he’s a genius.”
 Then on Feb. 24, Folkways releases a five-disc boxed set in a 140-page large format book that is the first full career retrospective for the blues and folk giant. On April 25, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will put on an all-star concert that echoes the original intention of the project, “Lead Belly at 125: A Tribute to an American Songster.”
 The 125 milestone is meant to mark the anniversary of his birth to sharecroppers in rural Louisiana. But even if you believe some research that says he was born in 1889, that marker has still passed. “Had things happened quicker,” Place says, it all would have been completed for the 125th, who previously put together the massive “Woody at 100” collection on Woody Guthrie in 2012. The vagaries of collecting materials and photographic rights for the extensive book, and shooting the documentary took time.
 It was a little easier to assemble the music itself since the Smithsonian through its acquisition of Folkways label, has access to the full span of his recording career, from the first recordings in 1934 to the more sophisticated “Last Sessions” in 1948 in which he was using reel-to-reel tape for the first time, allowing him to also capture the long spoken introductions to many of the songs that are in some cases as important historically as the songs themselves.
 Lead Belly wrote dozens of songs, but a lot of the material that he first recorded were acquired from hearing them first sung in the fields or in prison, where he served two stints. He got out each time, according to legend, by writing songs for the governors of those states, who, charmed, gave him his freedom.
 The real truth, Place’s research shows, is that he was up for parole for good behavior around those times anyway.
 But a good story is a good story. And when the Lomaxes found in Lead Belly a stirring voice but a repository for songs going back to the Civil War, the incarcerations were such a big part of the story, it was often played up in the advertising. Sometimes, he was asked to sing in prison stripes to drive home the point.
 And newspapers couldn’t resist the angle, “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides” a New York Herald Tribune subhead in 1933 said. “It made a great marketing ploy, until it got too much,” Place says.
 Notes from the singer’s niece in the boxed set make it clear “he did not have an ugly temper.” And Lead Belly, annoyed that the Lomaxes inserted themselves as co-writers for purposes of song publishing royalties. “He was at a point of: enough is enough,” Place says.
 While the blues man was known to make up songs on the spot, or write a sharp commentary on topical news, he also had a deep memory of any songs he had heard, and carried them forward.
 “Supposedly Lead Belly first heard ‘Goodnight Irene,’ sung by an uncle in around 1900,” Place says. “But it has roots in this show tune of the late 19th century called ‘Irene Goodnight.’ He changed it dramatically, his version. But a lot of these songs go back many, many years.”
 While the young Lead Belly picked up his trade working for years with Blind Lemon Jefferson, his interests transcended the blues into children’s songs, work songs, show tunes and cowboy songs.
 And he stood out, too, for his choice of instrument—a 12-string guitar, so chosen, Place says, so it could be heard above raucous barrooms where he often played. “It worked for him, because he played it in a very percussive way, he was a lot of times trying to simulate the barrelhouse piano sound on the guitar.”
 He played a variety of instruments, though, and can be heard on the new collection playing piano on a song called “Big Fat Woman,” and accordion on “John Henry.” While a lot of the music on the new set was issued, a couple of things are previously unreleased, including several sessions he recorded at WNYC in New York, sitting in the studio, running through songs and explaining them before he came to his inevitable theme song, “Good Night Irene.”
 One unusual track previously unreleased from the “Last Session” has him listening and singing along to Bessie Smith’s 1929 recording of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
 “Now that’s really cool,” Place says. “I’d play it for people who came through, musicians, and they’d say, ‘That blew my mind, man.’”
 The legacy of Lead Belly is clear in the film, when John Reynolds, a friend and author, quotes George Harrison as saying, “if there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”
And even as Place has been showing the documentary clips in person and online he’s getting the kind of reaction he had hoped. “People are saying, ‘I knew this music. I didn’t know this guy.”

By Roger Catlin


FEBRUARY 23, 2015