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: