photo & text by nacrowe
part of the fun of enjoying music is learning about the music that turned on and inspired the songwriters and musicians that have caught your ear. that complex lineage and entangled web of influence and inspiration is seemingly never-ending, which is fun to learn about and sift through. you go back a few generations of that and you hit cultural bedrock. there is an argument to be made that the iconic BLUES and FOLK singer-songwriter / multi-instrumentalist HUDDIE WILLIAM LEDBETTER, a.k.a LEADBELLY, is such a cornerstone influence on the AMERICAN musical tradition. many of the traditional FOLK songs he made famous with his renditions include "IN THE PINES," "COTTON FIELDS," "BOLL WEEVIL," "GOODNIGHT, IRENE" and "MIDNIGHT SPECIAL" and have since become standards effectively and have been covered by the likes of BOB DYLAN, NIRVANA, ELVIS PRESLEY, NAT KING COLE, CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL, THE BEACH BOYS, THE FALL, JOHNNY CASH, THE GRATEFUL DEAD, LITTLE RICHARD, TOM WAITS, THE GUN CLUB, KEITH RICHARDS, MINISTRY, BRYAN FERRY, THE WHITE STRIPES, TOM PETTY, X, NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS, THE MEAT PUPPETS and LED ZEPPELIN among countless others. he is similarly celebrated for his songwriting in classic tracks including "BLACK SNAKE MOAN," "C.C. RIDER" "ROBERTA" and "DEATH LETTER BLUES."
my experience listening to LEADBELLY is that the power lies in his performance. recorded by musicologist ALAN LOMAX, the production (one live mic) with its all-too-apparent rudimentary minimalism emotes a sense of purity and authenticity. there is no decoration, no reverb, no embellishments, no filler, no bullshit. just the power of a guitar and a human voice. the fact that such is still a compelling listen some 70-80 years after the fact is a testament to the power of LEADBELLY as a songwriter and interpreter of standards from the pre-recorded era. that GOSPEL, BLUES and FOLK tradition no doubt finds its deeper lineage run back through the middle passage to the coast and interior of WEST AFRICA. having been lucky enough to spend part of my youth in NIGERIA, experiencing those sounds and textures from the source at such a pivotal, formative moment in my youth is a gift for which i will never be able to thank my parents enough. its all connected.
i think that is why i get a little peeved by AMERICANA music which attempts to recreate a notion of native AMERICAN music that is devoid of AFRICAN influence, mistakenly looking to IRISH and SCOTCH traditions from APPALACHIA as a template for such. it feels dishonest and more than a bit racist, but thats just my opinion. thats an argument for another time i guess.
i cant stress how cultural significant a figure LEADBELLY is in the big picture of the AMERICAN musical tradition. this is the source. LEADBELLY (COLUMBIA, 1962) is a retrospective compilation created in the early 1960s and is as good a place to start an investigation as any other. needless to say, any of the various modern repackaging of LEADBELLY's material is very much well worth checking out.