An Expat Life: Nicaragua Blues and Ruse

Monday, May 7, 2007

Monday Morning Blues Returns

Well....this was a rough weekend...I've had a fever, I ache all over, and have a piercing headache. What better circumstances to write about some blues! First off, I'd like to refer you to a nice website that I found, a vast reservoir of Blues, Ragtime, Country, Carribean, and Western Swing music of yesteryear.....Impressive!

I digress....Today, I'd like to discuss the great Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. Some of you already know about Leadbelly, and others still, know how much I admire the man and his music. At any rate, I'm going to discuss him in a little more detail today, offering some listening suggestions and observations.

Huddie Ledbetter was born in the backwater border area between Louisiana and Texas and emerged to become one of the true icons of American music, penning classics such as Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, and many others. His songs were a reflection of America. He sang topical songs, about Boll Weevils, the Titanic, racism in Washington D.C., Hitler. He sang children's songs, work songs, union songs. You name it, Leadbelly had a song for it.

He was equally known for his booming voice and distinct 12-string guitar, which he named 'Stella' (named after the guitar manufacturer of parlor guitars, made famous by many bluesmen of the early 20th century). Tuned down to a much lower pitch, 'Stella' rung out and, coupled with his loud tenor voice, he produced a sound that pre-dated microphones. Whether it was at a 'sukey jumps', children's show, union rally, or in the fields, Leadbelly had a repertoire for all.

Using a plastic thumbpick and metal fingerpick, he played tunes for Alan Lomax's recording device (essentially the first portable recording device) and traveled the country as sort of a sideshow from a bygone era of minstrels and slave ships. Popular artists, such as Kurt Cobain and Bob Dylan, have been inspired greatly by Leadbelly. It was said that the former cited his 'Last Sessions' as his biggest musical inspiration. (Cobain had great taste by the way!)

A twice convicted murderer, Leadbelly famously sang his way out of prison, after recording a song for Louisiana Governor Pat Neff. Living under aliases and always seemingly in trouble with the law, Leadbelly amazingly escaped the incarceration and Jim Crow, to perform into his twilight years, linking himself with the left-wing establishment, along with Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cisco Houston, and others. In a twist of fate, Leadbelly never lived to see his star shine on a wide-scale level, as his signature hit, Goodnight Irene, reached the top of the American charts, performed by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, mere months after he succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease in 1949.

Every American song you hear on the radio has a little bit of Leadbelly in it. I suggest you check out Where Did You Sleep Last Night? as an introductory course into the man's music. Afterwards, you will be mystified and fascinated enough to delve into the rest. I guarantee....


Gustavo said...

Great post!!

BOOKiDO said...

It is great to see that you are inspired by my great uncle Lead Belly. His family runs the Lead Belly foundation and we are releasing some intersting things this year a book and documentary. Also a traveling exhibit taht maybe assistance to lectures.
Contact me at
I can even send you a Tshirt if you like.