Thursday, October 16, 2014

Week 9: Leadbelly

Leadbelly & Woody Guthrie

DOWNLOAD: Leadbelly Songs

READING: Start the Alan Lomax biography, read John Szwed's introduction (pps. 1-4), and his two Leadbelly chapters: Road Scholars (pps. 31-58) and The Saga of Lead Belly (pps. 59-76). Together these will give you a good understanding the Lomax recordings--and what they went through to make them (including the unwieldy recording set up they carried in the trunk of their car). And the beginnings of an understanding of Huddie Ledbetter himself... (The Szwed book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, is availailble in the UC Libraries (Main and Music). I believe it is available online--so that you can read this material on your laptop. Will check into a source for this--iDocs seems to have it posted: 

On the road, 1934--the Lomax car trunk

I kept this week's download a bit more manageable in size, but you'll still need to be selective as to what songs you concentrate on. Remember that our original S&P set has these three (they're basic):

Rock Island Line
Goodnight Irene
Midnight Special

The ones below are in the Leadbelly supplement download for this week. They're all good, of course, but I've picked out a few favorites. In particular, I want you to consider the words Leadbelly uses for Take This Hammer. The sequence of the verses as well...

The Gallis Pole
Duncan And Brady (Acapella)
Take This Hammer  (lyrics in gray songset--give them some thought)
Grey Goose
In The Pines
Bring A Little Water Sylvie (beautiful song to do together)
Corn Bread Rough
We Shall Be Free (with Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Sonny Terry)
Let It Shine On Me
Blind Lemon
Sukey Jump

Leadbelly, cover of Life magazine, 1935

Here are some additional suggestions:

* Consider the chorus in Midnight Special. What WAS the Midnight Special? How did this image figure in Leadbelly's life? Look into this.
* With Rock Island Line, there's some important history: the song was subsequently covered (basically stolen) by the English Skiffle Band figure, Lonnie Donnegan (in the 1950's), who  recorded--and later copyrighted--the song as his own. Look into this. There are videos of the skiffle version on YouTube. (The same thing happened with Elizabeth Cotten's Freight Train--you can look into the details here as well.) We can discuss this phenomenon in general...
* In the Pines and Bring a Little Water, Sylvie are just plain beautiful songs...

Also, and VERY important--as you look for videos of Leadbelly, as always with YouTube it's a question of how to sort through the vast array. Here are three that I think are IMPORTANT to pay close attention to (I WANT YOU ALL TO DO THIS!):

1.  Leadbelly /  segment from the Gordon Parks film (1976)   
It's well worth watching how Gordon Parks (the distinguished African American photographer and film maker) depicts Leadbelly. There's a lot of "attitude" here--and it's worth paying close attention to. Ask yourselves, why is this film almost impossible to find...?

Leadbelly in Gordon Parks' film version, 1976

 2.  The Leadbelly "Newsreel"
In which the "story" of Leadbelly is told--with footage of John Lomax and Leadbelly acting their parts, and a narrative which stands in relief to Gordon Parks' treatment. Note that the script here was written by the March of Time newsreel producers, not John Lomax. Consider the audience--in other words, who was this for? Newsreel features were common at the time--shown in theaters before the movies. (The newsreel images are fictional--a picture follows of the actual Angola Penitentiary in a period photo.)

Leadbelly and John Lomax, from the 1935 March of Time newsreel

Angola Penitentiary (Angola, LA), period photo

3.  And finally, Leadbelly singing Goodnight Irene (with Martha Promise Ledbetter)
I just found this recently--it's a gem. Martha Promise was Leadbelly's wife...! The setting is "set up" of course--how could it not be--but their personalities shine through...

Leadbelly and Martha Promise, Wilton, Conn. 1935

A good question throughout--in fact, the main question I'd like to consider--who WAS Leadbelly? The man himself--and the figure he presented to the world (the several figures). How do we come to our own terms with the question? And in relation to Mississippi John Hurt? They both left what was home--at very different times in their lives, and under very different circumstances. How is this reflected in their characters--and in the character of their songs?


One more thought: Leadbelly's late recordings, from 1948 (made in  New York, in his apartment with Martha during those last years) are also worth looking into. (Where Woody Guthrie slept on the couch for something like a year.) They may not show Leadbelly in full vigor, but each one has a ranging introduction in his own voice--and these are priceless. Listen to his version of Goodnight Irene here--even just the beginning...

The Last Sessions
You can access these on the Music Library's Streaming Audio Databases, under American Song:
Search for Leadbell's Last Sessions and you'll find all the recordings. (There's a wealth of earlier Leadbelly material in this archive as well. Poke around!) I'm sure that at least some of it is posted on YouTube as well.