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.