Monday, December 9, 2013

Films of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter)

As far as I know, Leadbelly appears in a grand total of four or five separate films or film clips, four of which are all available via Youtube. I've compiled them together in this blog for your enjoyment or study.  

Brief bio:  Leadbelly was born Huddie Ledbetter in 1888 in Morningsport, Louisiana.  Leadbelly was a nickname, based on his last name.  On, Leadbelly's first occupation is listed as "murderer" as he is known to have killed two men, one in Texas and another in Louisiana.  His life has been portrayed in a 1976 movie, excerpts of which can be seen on  Leadbelly was "discovered" by John Lomax, who was the greatest folk music historian of the first half of the 20th century.  He more than anyone else is responsible for recordings of Leadbelly as well as his film appearances. Leadbelly also came to know Pete Seeger of the Weavers, but became more appreciated after his death, with songs like Midnight Special,  Goodnight Irene,  Rock Island Line, Easy Rider, Black Snake Moan, Green Corn, and many others.  

To me, one of the main characteristics of his playing is the walking bass line, or "boogie-woogie" which he uses in many of his songs.   Midnight Special is a good example. 

Perhaps the most famous of his film appearances is in the 3 Songs video, which purports to be the only film of Leadbelly (but of course that is not true).   Leadbelly plays Pick a Bale of Cotton,  Grey Goose (Lord, Lord, Lord), and Take This Hammer.  Also in the introduction he is humming to the tune of Black Girl (In the Pines). The lyrics of Black Girl would probably have strained social sensibilities of 1945 (white folks, especially, please promise not to try to sing these, okay?):

Black girl, black Girl, don't lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, In the pines, Where the sun never shine
I shivered the whole night through.

My Husband was a Railroad man

Killed a mile and a half from here
His head, was found, In a drivers wheel
And his body hasn't never been found.

With those lyrics, it is probably just as well for the film that Leadbelly just hums along.  

   By the same token, Leadbelly's "Pick a Bale of Cotton" was acceptable to audiences of the 1940s, but today modern Americans, particularly African Americans, might not appreciate hearing a song that brags about how much cotton the singer and his wife can pick.  But more importantly, this cut shows both  Leadbelly's right and left hand, giving us some idea of his complex playing style.  Sometimes I think that "Pick a Bale a Day" may derive from some West African dialect (like "Polly Waddle Doodle all the day," or "oh dee do da day") which not be nonsense syllables but rather corrupted West African song lyrics), but I'll need some help from an African languages scholar to see if there is any merit to that thought.  If anyone out there has such a resource, please send them my way!   

Leadbelly typically played his 12 string guitar tuned down five half steps from standard:  BEADF#B.  In addition, his Stella guitar used a "ladder" bracing system rather than the more popular cross braced system used by the rest of the guitar world.  That is why Leadbelly has a much different sound from his instrument  (see also   Why You Can't Sound Like Leadbelly   elsewhere in this blog).  

There was also a newsreel documentary of Leadbelly, which re-enacts the story of John Lomax finding Leadbelly in prison, and then later becoming his benefactor.  Although Leadbelly himself used to write his nickname as two separate names, i.e. "Lead Belly," in the video it is clear that Lomax pronounced the nickname "LEADbelly, not "Lead...BELLy" as some have tried to do to match the spelling.   His first name was pronounced "HOO-dee" by Lomax, although Pete Seeger referred to him as HYEW-dee.

In any case, Leadbelly went to jail twice for murder, but was able to secure a pardon both times by writing a song for the governor, once in Texas and once in Louisiana.  One of those songs was "Midnight Special" which has been covered by a number of groups over the years, notably Creedence Clearwater Rival.

There are also two video versions of Leadbelly singing Goodnight Irene, which would later be popularized by Pete Seeger and the Weavers.  The first of these seems to have an overdubbed soundtrack.  It also ends somewhat peculiarly, as Leadbelly's wife Martha seems to be drifting off to sleep, and Leadbelly abruptly grabs her jaw. My interpretation is that Leadbelly was probably irritated, perhaps due to the importance and expense of being recorded on film.  Lomax gets him to calm down.   In any case, the "second take" appears to be less edited, with Leadbelly actually playing and singing.   

      I also found a short clip of Leadbelly filling up John Lomax's car...

    I am not the greatest of Leadbelly historians, but these are the only video footage that I am aware of that have actual footage of Leadbelly.  There are, however, a large number of audio recordings, thanks in no small measure to John and Alan Lomax for preserving them for us.  In some, Leadbelly shares his invaluable insights about his songs, his music and their origins. In particular, I am very taken by his discussion of John Henry. Leadbelly and Lomax believed that John Henry was a real person, born in Newport News Virginia, and he died working on the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott West Virginia in the 1870s.  If you like, you can read about my discussion of this issue here:   Did John Henry Really Exist? .  

Leadbelly's opinions are expressed here:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Double Dixie, Dixie Twins (Battle of Jubilo)

At the Trolley Stop jam in Dayton, we often play a song which we call Double Dixie or Dixie Twins.  It's actually a medley of two Civil War songs:  Dixie and the Battle of Jubilo, one from the South and one from the North.  

Neither song is particularly correct politically.  Musically, they are great songs, but within certain sectors of the African American community, for example, they may not be as well received (musician beware!).  Dixie in particular is politically charged.  I remember in college one of my classmates, an African American from Cleveland's east side, told the story of how his predominantly black high school had "Dixie" as its school fight song.  He played in the marching band because he loved music, but they all hated the song.  He had us howling with laughter as he recounted having to play that song at halftime and being booed by everybody in the stadium including their own parents.  Finally, though, the students got together and petitioned the administration to change it and everyone was happy. 

      Dixie is still heard regularly among Old Time musicians, most often as an instrumental these days.    Here's a nice version by Sam Gleaves and Jory Hutchens of Berea, KY.   


G - - - C - - -
G - - - D - G -
G - - - C - - -
G - - - D - G -

G - C - G - D - 
G - C - G - D - 
G - C - G - D G 
G - C - G - D G  

   It seems appropriate to follow Dixie with a Union song to kind of counterbalance it.  The Battle of Jubilo (also "Year of Jubilo" or "Kingdom Coming") is often heard as an instrumental; for example, you may have heard it on Ken Burns documentary of the Civil War.  This is a northern song, composed during the war by Henry C. Work, and like Dixie was originally sung in (false) dialect.  The idea was that the Union army was scaring away all the southern slave owners, leaving behind the slaves to celebrate. Hillar Bergman knocks out a great version on fiddle here.  However he is in the key of E, so if you would like to play it the Trolley Stop way, you will need to capo up on 7.   

G - - - G - D -
G - - - D - G -
G - - - G - D -
G - - - D - G -

C - - - G - D - 
G - - - D - G -
C - - - G - D - 
G - - - D - G -

Monday, July 22, 2013

Le Chat Mort---the American Tour

    How very fortunate we are to have had Le Chat Mort visit Morgantown, performing at locales such as 123 Pleasant Street, the Morgantown Brewing Company and Black Bear's.  Le Chat Mort (pronounced either like it sounds in English or else "le shah morr" in French) means "the dead cat" and the group took that name because they once rented an apartment and found a dead cat in the freezer. Yech--probably an anatomy student lived there, or else someone who is really weird!).  Le Chat Mort is based in Stockholm Sweden, and came to Morgantown thanks partly to Morgantown expatriate Rachel Eddy, who splits time between Stockholm and Morgantown.  

    In any case, we were fortunate enough to host a brilliantly original group with a very unique sound.  The band is led by the incredibly talented Camilla Neideman on snare drum and lead vocals; David Nilsson on banjo, Peter Strömquist on Guitar and Matti Friberg on Upright Bass. Together they create a sound that draws from the Swing era, but also incorporates elements of Jazz, Old Time, Blues and Bluegrass.  

Listening to them on their latest album,  I was very impressed by the vocal leads by Camilla.  She has a very unconventional voice and commands the songs with great sensitivity and passion.  She also has the uncanny ability to dance the Lindy Hop while playing the snare drums.  Peter is perhaps the most accomplished instrumentalist of the group.  David plays the banjo with sort of a cross between chromatic and Scruggs style and perhaps his forte is blending the banjo in with different types of songs than one is accustomed to hearing.   Matti Freberg also does a nice job on the upright bass and seems comfortable with the variety of styles that the group plays in.  For example, when they visited Morgantown they played quite a bit of Old Time and Bluegrass, and so I was surprised that their album had a number of original tracks, but mainly done with a swing jazz kind of sound, at least in my opinion.  

    My favorite on the album is the seventh track, My Eyes Were Closed, which really highlights Camilla's vocals.  But I also like the part where the song picks up a light bluegrass rhythm.   David's banjo work is particularly commendable here, showing a way to play the banjo beautifully and lyrically in a slower song, blending well with Peter's guitar.  Matti also demonstrates a nice touch on bass.  In this case, the band shows that it's not just about how fast you can play, but the range and sensitivity that you bring to the song with different instruments and different styles.     

    I should also mention that before the Le Chat Mort peformance at 123 Pleasant Street, music fans were treated to a performance by husband and wife duo Kristian Herner and Rachel Eddy, who were their usual terrific selves.   My favorite from their set was a unique version of Cotton Eyed Joe, which was distinctly different from the popular version by Rednex a few years ago.  Believe it or not, Rednex is a Swedish group!

    I hope that Le Chat Mort will come back to America.  Indeed there is a thriving American Old Time musical community thriving throughout Europe, and Stockholm has become a hotbed of interest in Old Time.  Le Chat Mort is definitely a fabulous group in person, and the new album is great also.     


Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Few African Influences on Old Time American Music

Of course it is impossible to treat this broad subject in detail...but here are some of my notes of the particular items that have caught my eye, mainly while researching other songs

Polly waddle doodle all the day! (anonymous)

Camptown races, they sing this song,
Doo da!  Doo da!  Oh de doo da day! (Stephen Foster)

So are these just "nonsense syllables" made up by the fertile minds of folks like Stephen Foster, one of America's earliest and most celebrated folk composer and lyricists?

Maybe, but I kind of doubt it.  More likely, I think these lyrics are garbles from African languages, which were sung by African slaves, and which Foster co-opted for his own.  In fact, I hope someone will read this blog and recognize which African language inspired these lyrics.  

So did Foster plagiarize those lyrics?  A case can be made either way.   But in pre-Civil War America, the idea of ownership of African songs and lyrics was quite different than today.  In theory, an African-American could own copyrights, but in practice it would have been nearly impossible.  Even for a white man, it might be socially improper in some circles, to admit being influenced by African songs and lyrics, but it would be much easier for the white man to obtain legal title to them.
No doubt there are other features of African music that continue to pop up on the American music scene as well.  For example, Scotch Irish fiddle tunes almost always have lyrics, and often tell a story.  African songs are more likely to have a leader/response pattern:

Leader:  "My old master said to me..."
Leader:  That when he died he'd set me free!


You can hear the same pattern in Camptown Races:
Leader:  De Camptown ladies sing dis song:
Response:  DO DA!  DO DA!
Leader:  De Camptown track is five miles long
Response:  OH DE DOO DA DAY!

The other clue is the scale pattern used.  European music usually uses a seven note scale, whereas African music uses a pentatonic five note scale, dropping the second and seventh notes.  For many songs a minor scale is used, in which the third note is flattened by half a step.  

In addition certain patterns such as the 12 bar blues, occur frequently in African music.  I  remember in college, though, listening to a collection of folk songs provided by a student from Uganda, and on one of the songs I was able to sing "polly waddle doodle all the day" and the melody more less matched the recording.  There wasn't much doubt in my mind that the two songs had common ancestry.    I wish I could identify that precise song, but of course it is lost to me.  All I can say is that somewhere there is a record in Uganda that has a song that sounds a lot like Polly Waddle Doodle.  

     So, if the songs have the leader/response pattern in the lyrics, if the melodies resemble African melodies and are composed in the (African) pentatonic scale, and if it contains lyrics that are partially unintelligible to a speaker of English....well, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it probably is in fact a duck.  Camptown Races is based surely on some African song at least in part.  

    As for the issue of how people like Stephen Foster are to be judged, I think I would tend to come down on the side of those that feel they did more harm that good.  If they had not copyrighted the songs, then the songs might have been forgotten by now.  To me at least it doesn't seem fair to lay the injustices of slavery and racism at the feet of a mere compiler of folksongs.  

     Although American Old Time music is primarily derived from Scotch Irish sources, there has always been an African influence as well.  Gee, come to think of it, the banjo itself is an African instrument, and where would we be without banjos?   The African banjo was originally a drum with strings stretched over it, and eventually evolved with the assistance of American slavemasters and eventually exported back to Ireland and Scotland.

     Minstrel shows were a socially acceptable (more or less!)  way of bringing African music to the dominant culture, and heavily influenced the Old Time scene.  Much of our music has a minstrelly kind of sound to it (Raise a Rough House and Tear It Down come to mind). 

 Whistler's Jug Band had an version of Tear it Down (Fold it Down) circa 1930.  

     Uncle Dave Macon came from a family that operated a hotel, and hosted travelling musicians including minstrel shows and vaudevillians.  In those days of course there was no TV, so so find entertainment you would have to hear live entertainers, maybe performing in a makeshift auditorium or a carnival tent.  These performers traveled from city to city and provided one of the few venues in which African and European cultures were allowed to mix.

   Hence Uncle Dave learned many of his famous songs from musicians working the show circuit.  No doubt there are many, many other connections between African American and Old Time musicians, and Uncle Dave is just a single (if very prominent) example.  

 Dave Macon was one of several famous musicians who was influenced by vaudeville as well as minstrel shows. 

    Parenthetically, I might add that we don't like to admit that our ancestors used to like appearing in blackface and singing African-inspired songs.  However, the fact of the matter is that it indeed was considered quite acceptable at the time. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Honeywagon's Bluegrass Fusion: Michael Jackson's Billie Jean

     As another example of Musical Fusion (in this case taking a song that was originally performed in a Pop format, and incorporating elements of Bluegrass and Blues), please check out this video of Billie Jean, originally written and performed by Michael Jackson, but adapted by a group called Honeywagon:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Seminole Wind

Seminole Winds
by John Anderson

Em             G           D7                   Am
Ever since the days of old men would search for wealth untold
Em                      G            D7              Am
They dig for silver and for gold and leave the empty holes
    Em                    G
And way down south in the Everglades
          D7                        Am
Where the black water rolls and the Saw grass waves
Em                     G                  D7          Am
The eagles fly and the Otters play in the land of the Seminole

   Em        G             D7                         Am
So blow blow Seminole wind blow like your never gonna blow again
Em                        G                    D7             Am
I'm calling to you like a long lost friend but I know who you are
    Em                 G           D7                Am
And blow blow from the Okeechobee  all the way up to Micanopy
Em                         G            D7                 Am
Blow cross the home of the Seminole the alligators and the Garr

Em                G                 D7             Am
Progress came and took its toll and in the name of flood control
   Em                          G
They make their plans and they drained the land
D7                 Am
Now the glades are going dry
        Em                 G              D7         Am
And the last time I walked in the swamp I sat upon a cypress stump
Em                     G                  D7      Am
I listened close and I heard the ghost of Osceola cry

Repeat #2

Friday, June 14, 2013

Deep Elm Blues

     Deep Elm Blues (or Deep Elem Blues) is an old blues song that was probably composed in Texas.  The Grateful Dead did a version which somebody in Sweden liked, and they wound up teaching it to former Morgantown resident Rachel Eddy Herner, who has since brought it back to West Virginia.  

     The video below shows Rachel accompanied by her sister Libby plus Bob Shank on the banjo (Bob, how did you get to be so lucky to land this gig??).  
    This song is based on a 12 bar blues, a song form as American as apple pie.  Best of all, Libby is kind enough to show the guitar chord positions on camera.  

   I like the kind of lilting rhythm in their version of the song and the basic simplicity of the arrangement.   There are a number of other versions on youtube, many of which use a more complicated chord structure and rhythm.  I may be biased, but I like the Morgantown version much better than the Grateful Dead version. 

When you’re going out to Deep Elm.

just to have a little fun,
You better have your fifteen dollars
when the po-liceman come
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.

When you going out to  Deep Elm
put your money in your socks
those Deep Elm women 
they will throw you on the rocks
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.

When your going out to Deep Elm
Put your money in your pants
those Deep Elm women
they won’t give a man a chance
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.

Well I used to know a preacher
Preached the bible through and through
He went down to Deep Elm
and now the preaching man is through
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.
Oh sweet Mama, Daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.

Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.
Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got the Deep Elm blues.

G   G   G   G
C   C   G   G
D   C   G   G


(well if you're)

- -   - -    - -   -  -        -  -   - -     -  -   -  -             - -   - -    - -   -  -         -  -   - -    -  -   -  -                        
- -   - -    - -   -  -        -  -   - -     -  -   -  -    - -   - -    - -   -  -        -  -   - -    -  -   -  -    
- -   - -    - -   -  -        0 0  - -     -  -    -  - - -   - -    - -   -  -        - -   - -   -  -   -  -    
- -   - -   0 0  2 2        -  -  2 2   0 0    -  - - -   - -    0 0  2 2       3  3   2 2 0  0  -  -    
- -   2 2  - -   - -         - -    -  -    -  -   2 2            - -  2 2    - -   -  -        -  -   - -   -  -   2 2                    
3 3  - -   - -    - -        -  -   - -     -  -   -  - 3 3  - -    - -   -  -        -  -   - -   -  -   -  -
going to Deep Elm  Just to have a little fun  Better have your 15 dollars  when that old policeman come
- -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -    - -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -    
- -   - -    - -   -  -       1 1  - -     -  -    -  - - -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -    
- -   - -   0 0  2 2       -  -  2 2   0 0    -  - - -   - -    - -   -  -       0 0   - -     -  -   -  -   
- -   2 2  - -   - -        - -    -  -    -  -   2 2             - -   - -    0 0  2 2      -  -   2 2    0  0  -  -                     
3 3  - -   - -    - -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  - - - 2 2    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   2 2    
- -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -             3 3  - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -
Oh sweet mama                   Daddy’s got the deep elm                  Blues _______________     __________________

- -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -    -  -   -  -    - -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -   

- -   - -    - -   -  -       - -    - -    -  -    -  - - -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -
- -   - -   2 2   - -      0 0   - -    -  -    - -             - -   - -    - -   -  -       0 0   - -     -  -   -  -
0 0 4 4   - -   4 4      - - 2 2  0 0    - -              - -   - -    0 0  2 2     -  -   2 2    0  0  -  -
- -   - -   - -    - -        - -    - -   - - 2 2 - -  2 2    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   2 2
- -   - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -             3 3  - -    - -   -  -       -  -   - -     -  -   -  -
Oh sweet mama                   Daddy’s got the deep elm                  Blues _______________         _________________

The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore--Kathy Mattea

The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore is a song composed by Jean Ritchie.  I'm not sure if it has ever been performed at the Brew Pub, but I'm blogging about it because it kind of reminds me of Mannington Number 9, which is a Keith McManus song performed by the Woodticks as well as Stewed Mulligan.  
Like Mannington, L&N tells a tragic story about coal mining, but in this case it focuses on another scourge of the mines:  unemployment.  The closing of a coal mine does not destroy anything physically, but it is incredibly destructive economically.  It is a real song, and everyone who either works in mining, or has friends or families who work in mining, understands what it is all about. 

I first heard this song from Norman Blake, in his Directions album from the late 1970s.  Norman plays guitar for that and his wife Nancy accompanies on cello.  That album is no longer available (like the L&N, it shut down). Fortunately there are other excellent versions on 

My current favorite is the  version by Kathy Mattea, which is much more rhythmic--bluegrassized if that is a word--compared to the others, although there are several excellent versions available on youtube and other sources.  

Below are lyrics to the song, based mainly on the Kathy Matte version:

Em                  D                     Em
When I was a curly headed baby
                                D                       Em
My daddy set me down upon his knee
                                          D                               Em
Said “boy you go to school and learn your letters.
                 C                     D                   Em
Don't you be no dusty coal miner like me.”

            D                                                                       Em
 I  was born and raised in the mouth of the Hazzard Holler
                    D                          Em
Coal cars  rumbled past my door
                                          D                  Em
 But now they stand in a rusty row, all empty
                      C                D                  Em
 'Cause the L&N she don't stop here anymore.

Well I used to think my daddy was a black man
With script enough to buy the company store
Oh but now he goes to town with empty pockets
And Lord his face as white as the February snow.


(instrumental break)

Never thought I'd ever learn to love that coal dust
Never thought I'd pray to hear that whistle  roar
Oh but God I wish the grass would turn to money
And them  greenbacks fill my pockets once more.


Lastnight I dreamed I went down to the coal yard,
To draw my pay like I had done before
But those kudzu vines  were covering all the windows
And there were weeds and grass growing right up through the floor.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Who's Going to Feed Them Hogs?

Who's Gonna Feed Them Hogs
By Tom T. Hall
Tabbed By Larry Mofle

My recording sounds tuned down ¼ from Standard…

  G            C         D            G  
I met him in a hospital about a year ago
    C             G                             D 
And why i still remember him i guess i'll never know
     G             C            D         G
He'd lie there and cry out in a medicated fog,
 G            C                 D                     G
"here i am in this dang bed and who's gonna feed them hogs?"

C             G               D            G 
"four hundred hogs, they just standin' out there
   C          G                               D
My wife can't feed 'em and my neighbors don't care
     G                 C                D              G
They can't get out and roam around like my old huntin' dogs
G            C                 D                     G
Here i am in this dang bed and who's gonna feed them hogs?"

His face was lean and his hands were rough
His way was hogs and his nature was tough
His doctors tried to tell him that he may not live at all
But all he ever talked about was who's gonna feed them hogs


Change to key of A (A, D, E)

Four hundred hogs comes to eight hundred hams
And that's a lot of money for a hog-raisin' man
Four hundred hogs comes to sixteen hundred feet
The market's up and there are people a-waitin' on that meat

Well, the doctors say they do not know what saved the man from death
But in a few days he put on his overalls and he left
That's all there is to this small song but waitress, before you leave,
Would you bring me some coffee and a hot ham sandwich, please?

"four hundred hogs, they just standin' out there
His wife couldn't feed 'em and his neighbors didn't care
They couldn't get out and roam around like his old huntin' dogs...

Fades out