HUDDIE ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter left an indelible mark on the blues and on folk music. His songs have been covered by everyone form Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan to Nirvana and Jack White.
He inspired British pop. Think of The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’ or Lonnie Donegan’s rat-a-tat, road-to-ruin single, ‘Rock Island Line’. Both are Lead Belly covers. Donegan inspired British teenagers, including a 15-year-old John Lennon, who set up skiffle group The Quarrymen, which was later joined by Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
“George Harrison once said, ‘No Lead Belly, no Lonnie Donegan. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles’,” says John Reynolds, author of Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures. Led Zeppelin also covered Lead Belly.
But Lead Belly had an impact on Irish music, too. Rory Gallagher, for example, recorded several of his songs — ‘Roberta’, ‘Deep Elem Blues’, ‘Leaving Blues’ and one of his popular cowboy songs, ‘Out On the Western Plain’.
“In concerts,” says Reynolds, “when Rory would first start to play the opening line of what was his signature song, ‘When I Was a Cowboy’, the audience knew what was coming and they would all start cheering. Rory used to often sing the praises of Lead Belly in interviews.”
The Clancy Brothers — along with other members of the Greenwich Village folk scene, like Pete Seeger and The Weavers (whose cover of Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight, Irene’ in 1950, months after Lead Belly’s death, sold two million records) — also knelt at the Lead Belly altar.
“The Clancy Brothers fell in with other musicians and they would go down to Lead Belly’s apartment, in the East Village,” says Reynolds, who became a friend of Lead Belly’s widow, Martha, in the 1950s. “After Lead Belly died, several nights a week there would always be some people hanging out there, and they would just jam. The word was out if you wanted to hang out with other musicians: ‘Let’s go over to Lead Belly’s house’.”
Lead Belly sourced one of his songs, ‘If It Wasn’t For Dicky’, at a similar gathering. While hanging out at a party in Greenwich Village, he heard an Irish traditional singer, Sam Kennedy, singing a song in Irish, ‘An Droimeann Donn Dilís’. (The piper Séamus Ennis regularly performed the song, which is about a farmer who sells his droimeann cow because of rent and tax).
Lead Belly didn’t know what Kennedy was singing, but he liked the air. He asked Kennedy to write down a translation in English, which he turned into ‘If It Wasn’t for Dicky’. Seeger, Lee Hays and their band, The Weavers, later put different lyrics to it — without any mention of a cow — and it became one of their most famous love songs, ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’.
Van Morrison released a Lead Belly cover, ‘Midnight Special’, in 1967. Morrison will join Eric Burdon of The Animals, Billy Bragg and several other musicians, in a Lead Belly Fest at London’s Royal Albert Hall onMonday.
In a BBC tribute in 1999, which marked the 50th anniversary of Lead Belly’s death, Morrison — while sitting alongside Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones — claimed that the British popular music scene of the 1960s wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Lead Belly’s influence. “I’d put my money on that,” he said. Wood concurred.
According to Morrison, “my message from the Lead Belly story is called survival”. Lead Belly’s life was an extraordinary adventure. He was born sometime in the late 1880s, the grandson of slaves and the son of a sharecropper in Louisiana whose wife, Lead Belly’s mother, was half-Cherokee.
Lead Belly was schooled between the ages of eight and 12, which nurtured his prodigious memory (he could memorise a song from a single hearing), before working the cotton fields.
He began busking in his early teens, his uncle having taught him how to play the guitar.
He went to prison for the first time in 1915, 30 days’ hard labour for assaulting a woman in a saloon. A couple of years later, he was back in the can. He killed his cousin’s husband over a woman. He escaped, but was caught and sentenced to 35 years.
Famously, he wrote a song to the Texas state governor, Pat Neff, pleading for his release: “If I had you/Governor Neff/Like you got me/I’d wake up in the/Morning and I would/Set you free …I know my wife/Will jump and shout/When de train rolls up/And I come steppin’ out…”
The cajoling worked and he got released(although Reynolds says he was due for parole regardless).
He was back in prison again in 1930, this time in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, for attempted murder at a concert.
In 1933, the folklorist John Lomax visited Angola with his 18-year-old son, Alan, collecting folk songs, and became enchanted with Lead Belly’s repertoire.
The Lomaxes returned the following year and wrung a pardon from Louisiana state governor, O.K. Allen, for Lead Belly’s release.
They brought Lead Belly to New York, where he made a quick impression. In 1935, Time Inc’s newsreel film, The March of Time, profiled him in its first episode, alongside Adolf Hitler, as two men on the rise. Whites were enthralled by him in the city; the black community, though, largely ignored him. “Black people had come up from the South. They weren’t interested in seeing somebody singing songs to remind them of where they were trying to get away from.”
Some of the reactions from white people not accustomed to seeing a black person in public life weren’t exactly politically correct.
“Some of the newspapers ran with headlines like ‘Here to do a few songs between homicides’, or ‘The murderous minstrel’,” says Reynolds.
Lead Belly married his second wife, Martha Promise, almost 20 years his junior, in 1935. He was diagnosed with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the same year he played gigs in Paris, France.
He died on December 6, 1949. Tom Waits was born the following day. “I like to think I passed him in the hall,” Waits has written.
The Lead Belly Fest is at 7.30pm, Monday, June 15, The Royal Albert Hall, London. www.royalalberthall.com.