Ever wondered where ledzeppelin really got the name and a large part of their inspiration?
Leadbelly (1888-1949) - born Huddie Ledbetter
American blues singer, "King of The Twelve-String Guitar," who twice sang himself out of jails. Ledbetter helped to inspire the folk and blues revivals of the Fifties and Sixties and he was one of the first traditional folk musicians to perform for a city audience. Ledbetter's perseverance and power earned him the nickname Leadbelly - he could pick in the cotton fields 1,000 pounds a day. According to some critics, Leadbelly's rendition of Blind Lemon's 'Matchbox Blues,' using a knife-slide guitar technique, was probably the finest blues he ever recorded.
"Friend, did you bring me the silver,
Friend, did you bring me the gold,
What did you bring me my dear friend,
To keep me from the gallow's pole. "
(from Leadbelly, Shout On!, 1948)
Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) was born on 15 January (in some sources on Jan. 21), 1888, by Caddo Lake near Shreveport, Louisiana. He grew up in Louisiana and Texas, where his family moved when he was five. At home his uncle Bob taught him to play the guitar and his father taught him accordion. Travelling around in his early teens, Leadbelly picked up music that dated back to slave days. He absorbed all kinds of music he heard and made it his own. His mother sang spirituals and children's play songs, from wandering piano players he adopted the bass figurations of boogie woogie, and in barrelhouses and prison he heard songs that came straight from the heart. First Leadbelly played an eight-string and later 12-string guitar, which was to become his trademark instrument. Also many other blues singers, notably Blind Willie McTell and Lonnie Johnson on some of his earliest records, used the 12-string Stella.
At the age of sixteen Leadbelly was married, and he played and drank all night. At eighteen he went to Texas where he picked cotton, and had many other jobs, too. In Dallas in 1910 he heard a jazz band playing for the first time. There he also met Blind Lemon Jefferson, who taught him many songs. With his quick temper Leadbelly lived violently and he had trouble with "the truculent Dallas prostitutes". His musical career was interrupted in 1916, when he was jailed for assaulting a woman. His parents mortgaged their farm to pay for the lawyer. Leadbelly escaped from the chain gang - across a fresh-ploughed field - and spent a couple of years hiding under the alias of 'Walter Boyd'. His freedom outside society ended when he shot and killed a man in an argument over a woman, and received a 30-year sentence in Harrison County Prison in Texas.
In prison he learned 'Take This Hammer', in which the song is punctuated by the hammer stroke of the chain gang. In one of his songs, Leadbelly recalls a working day under the hot summer sun. To communicate with each other, the men shouted back and forth, trading lines of a song, or casually improvising new words to a familiar tune. Leadbelly sang this shout to attract the attention of the water boy, who would ease the thirst of the workers:
"Bring me little water, Silvie,
Bring me little water, now,
Bring me little water, Silvie,
Every little once in a while."
Seven years later, in 1925, a song begging Texas governor Pat Neff for a pardon released Leadbelly from prison. Neff had sworn never to pardon anybody as long as he was governor. However, Leadbelly was soon back behind bars at Louisiana's State Penitentiary (better known as Angola) by 1930, this time for "assault with intent to murder."
"Mother, did you bring me silver?
Mother, did you bring me gold?
What did you bring me mother,
Keep me from the gallows pole?
What did you - what did you -
Keep me from the gallows pole?"
(from 'Gallis Pole'
In 1933 folklorists John A. and Alan Lomax found Leadbelly, and recorded his songs for the Library of Congress. Leadbelly sang with a powerful, rough voice and was recognized by prisoners and jailers alike as one of the greatest performers in the region. He was not a master of technicalities - his tempo varied according to his feelings and he didn't try difficult chords. His playing was straight and honest, and although his Louisiana accent was sometimes impossible to understand, his songs won the audience with their emotional impact. Leadbelly's lyrics went to the point; they were simple but the listener could give them his or her own meaning. Washington D.C. in 'Bourgeois Blues' became an allegory of all cold gig cities: "Look a here people, Listen to me / Don't try to find no home down / in Washington D.C. / Lord it's a bourgeois town, ooh, its a bourgeois town. / I got the Bourgeois Blues / I'm gonna spread the news all around." When Leadbelly tried to give a clear statement about politics, his words became forced and superficial: "Hitler started out in nine-teen hundred and thirty two. / Hitler started out in nineteen hundred and thirty two. / When he started out / he took the home from the Jew." (from 'Hitler Song' From the plantation workers Leadbelly adopted hollers, which can be heard in several songs. He started to develop a free-wheeling recitative technique when he performed at universities and introduced students to what blues was about.
Leadbelly updated the song that had softened Pat Neff, and in 1934 Governor O.K. Allen let him out of prison. Leadbelly worked for Lomax as a chauffeur, assistant and guide. They toured a circuit of college towns and Leadbelly started to become noticed by students. Through Lomax he soon befriended a young banjo player, Peter Seeger, the son of a famous musicologist, who had just begun performing for small audiences. Seeger tried to hide his Harvard upbringing, dressed in jeans, but noted that Leadbelly had always a clean white shirt, starched collar, well-pressed suit, and shined shoes. "Perhaps this modern age is not liable to produce such a combination of genuine folk artist and virtuoso. Because nowadays when the artist becomes a virtuoso, there is normally a much greater tendency to cease being folk. But when Leadbelly rearranged a folk melody he had come across - he often did, for he had a wonderful ear for melody and rhythm - he did it in line with his own great folk traditions." (Seeger in The Leadbelly Songbook, 1962)
Lomax brought Leadbelly to New York, and published a book about him in 1936. Leadbelly recorded his best-known songs, 'The Rock Island Line,' 'The Midnight Special,' and 'Goodnight Irene'. Living in freedom, Leadbelly did not try to change his way of living, and he spent his earnings in partying and on booze. In 1939 he landed again in jail, and served two years for assault in New York's Riker's Island. A balancing power in life was Martha, whom he had married in 1935.
"Stop rambling and stop gambling,
Quit staying out late at night.
Go home to your wife and your family,
Sit down by the fireside bright."
During the 1940s Leadbelly's home in New York was a centre for folk and blues activity. Among his friends were Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Woody Guthrie. His new songs included 'Bourgeois Blues', which described the racial prejudices he encountered in Washington, DC. However, the audience was more interested in his older songs, 'Gallis Pole,' 'Sukey Jump,' 'John Hard,' 'Mary Don't You Weep,' 'Pick a Bale of Cotton' and others. Leadbelly travelled in 1949 to Europe, appearing in jazz events in Paris. During the tour he felt his right hand becoming paralyzed and spent six weeks in Bellevue on his return. Leadbelly died on December 6, 1949, of amyathopic lateral sclerosis. He was buried in Shreveport, La., not far from the farm where he was born. Six months later Peter Seeger and other members of the folk group The Weavers took his 'Goodnight Irene' to the top of the pop charts. 'Rock Island Line' was a hit for Lonnie Donegan and Leadbelly's classic 'Cottonfields' became a major success for the Beach Boys. Leadbelly's complete Library of Congress recordings were issued in 1990 on 12 albums.
Other classic blues singers who have been in jail: Son House, sentenced to fifteen years in the notorious Parcham State Farm for shooting a man in a barroom brawl; Bucca White, shot and killed a man in a barroom brawl, and was sentenced in the Parcham Farm 'correctional facility'. - Champion Jack Dupree spent during World War II two years in a Japanese prison camp. - NOTE: Gordon Parks's film Leadbelly (1976) was based on the singer's life. - For further reading: The Leadbelly Songbook, ed. by Moses Asch and Alan Lomax (1962) - Note: The playwright David Mamet has used Leadbelly's definition of blues as an example of how to construct a dramatic structure. According to Leadbelly, in the first phrase a knife is used for cutting bread, in the second for shaving a beard, and in the third to kill an unfaithful girl friend.
Library of Congress records: Midnight Special, Gwine to Dig A Hole To Put The Devil In, Let It Shine On Me - 46 songs, recorded between 1935 and 1942
KING OF THE TWELVE-STRING GUITAR, 1935
ALABAMA BOUND, 1940
SHOUT ON!, 1948
LEADBELLY'S LAST SESSION, 1953
LEADBELLY SONGS FOLK SONGS, 1968
ALABAMA BOUND, 1989
COMPTELE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS SESSIONS, 1990
LEADBELLY SINGS FOLK SONGS, 1990
BOURGEOIS BLUES, 1991
KING OF THE TWELVE-STRING GUITAR, 1991
LEADBELLY, 1996 (includes The bourgeois blues, Looky looky younder, Black Betty, Yellow womans doorbells, Poor Howard, Green Corn, The Gallis Pole, Dekalb Woman 2, Noted Rider, Big Fat Woman, Burrow Love & Go, Bring me Lil Water Silvy, Julie Ann Johnson, Line Em, Whoe Back Buck, John Hardy, Pick a Bale of Cotton, The Midnight Special, Alabama Bound, Rock Island Line, Good Morning Blues, Leaving Blues, Roberta, Alberta, I'm on my last go round, New York City)