Archive for the ‘Leadbelly’ Category

“Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides”

June 11, 2015


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Whoa. When I first put on this track, I have to say I was plenty revved up at the prospect of a track with Lead Belly singing duet with Bessie Smith. I mean, can you imagine…? What we get instead is Lead Belly singing along with a recording off a 78. We hear him listening to a record the same way we would: singing along with a legend. He is silent, reverent, and touchingly sweet. You can hear the deep respect he holds for Bessie in every breath and it’s amazing.


One of the best parts of the collections are the liner notes. Glossy booklets written by scholars who also like to nerd out. The book has two of such essays. One by Robert Santelli, the Executive Director of the Grammy Museum, and another by Grammy-winning Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place. The Place essay is very in-depth and compelling and well worth multiple readings. Especially enlightening is the piece “Why He Sang Certain Songs” by his niece Tiny Robinson.


Lead Belly sits in on two radio shows featuring his music. Lead Belly spent his later years in New York City in the nascent stages of the folk scene. He enjoyed a fine bit of notoriety and appeared on a couple radio programs. These sets on WNYC run six and seven songs, and the second one features the Oleander Quartet.


Not only are you getting five CDs with 108 tracks, but each of those tracks are given due diligence in the back half of the book. As you may know, you can buy 20 different Lead Belly albums and get 22 different recordings of “Goodnight Irene” or “Midnight Special.” The liner notes tell you precisely what is unique about the recordings included in the box set, or offer interesting anecdotes of each one. It’s an in-depth, immersive experience.


The fifth CD of this set features selections from what are now considered Lead Belly’s “Final Sessions,” which were all recorded in the home of Frederic Ramsey around 1948. These showcase a level of intimacy that is not captured in his Library of Congress and radio sessions, as he performs while talking, laughing, and singing with those in the room.
It’s fitting that the final track on The Smithsonian Folkways Collection isn’t a song, but a brief monologue called “In the World”, based on a half-remembered conversation from long ago. It makes for a fitting epilogue to this monumental box set, primarily because it reveals Lead Belly’s role as an archivist of American music, passing tunes and ideas along from one person to the next, from one generation to the next. “We all gotta get peace together because we’re in the world together,” he muses. “I never heard nothing like it. Now you got it now.”


John Hardy

October 4, 2012

Leadbelly plays “John Hardy”on the diatonic accordion:


by John Harrington Cox  (From Journal of American Folk-Lore, Volume 32, No. 126, October-December 1919, pp.505-520)

The following statement was made to me in person in the summer of 1918 by Mr. James Knox Smith, a Negro lawyer of Keystone, McDowell County, who was present at the trial and also at the execution of John Hardy:—

“Hardy worked for the Shawnee Coal Company, and one pay-day night he killed a man in a crap game over a dispute of twenty-five cents. Before the game began, he laid his pistol on the table, saying to it, ‘Now I want you to lay here; and the first nigger that steals money from me, I mean to kill him.’ About midnight he began to lose, and claimed that one of the Negroes had taken twenty-five cents of his money. The man denied the charge, but gave him the amount; whereupon he said, ‘Don’t you know that I won’t lie to my gun?’ Thereupon he seized his pistol and shot the man dead.

“After the crime he hid around the Negro shanties and in the mountains a few days, until John Effler (the sheriff) and John Campbell (a deputy) caught him. Some of the Negroes told them where Hardy was, and, slipping into the shanty where he was asleep, they first took his shotgun and pistol, then they wakcd him up and put the cuffs on him. Effler handcuffed Hardy to himself, and took the train at Eckman for Welch. Just as the train aas passing through a tunnel, and Effler was taking his prisoner from one car to another, Hardy jumped, and took Effler with him. He tried to get hold of Effler’s pistol; and the sheriff struck him over the head with it, and almost killed him. Then he unhandcuffed himself from Hardy, tied him securely with ropes, took him to Welch, and put him in jail.

“While in jail after his conviction, he could look out and see the men building his scaffold; and he walked up and down his cell, telling the rest of the prisoners that he would never be hung on that scaffold. Judge H. H. Christian, who had defended Hardy, heard of this, visited him in jail, advised him not to kill himself or compel the officers to kill him, but to prepare to die. Hardy began to sing and pray, and finally sent for the Reverend Lex Evans, a white Baptist preacher, told him he had made his peace with God, and asked to be baptized. Evans said he would as soon baptize him as he would a white man. Then they let him put on a new suit of clothes, the guards led him down to the Tug River, and Evans baptized him. On the scaffold he begged the sheriff’s pardon for the way he had treated him, said that he had intended to fight to the death and not be hung, but that after he got religion he did not feel like fighting. He confessed that he had done wrong, killed a man under the influence of whiskey, and advised all young men to avoid gambling and drink. A great throng witnessed the hanging.

“Hardy was black as a crow, over six feet tall, weighed about two hundred pounds, raw-boned, and had unusually long arms. He came originally from down eastern Virginia, and had no family. He had formerly been a steel-driver, and was about forty years old, or more.”

Rock Island Line

June 8, 2012

Thanks to Stephen Winick of The American Folklife Center for this great history of  “Rock Island Line,” and more background on the influence of traditional southern music on the British Invasion.  See earlier post here.

by Stephen Winick:

Lonnie Donegan was a member of the London-based Chris Barber Jazz Band. In the band he played banjo, but when the larger ensemble took a break between sets, Donegan and two other members remained onstage to perform in a simple acoustic trio featuring guitar, bass, and washboard. In this latter configura­tion, Donegan was lead singer and guitarist. Borrowing a term from American music of the 1920s, he dubbed the trio the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group. The skiffle group proved so popular with audiences that they recorded two skiffle numbers during the sessions for the larger jazz band’s first LP on July 13, 1954. The tracks were released on the Chris Barber album New Orleans Joys in 1954, and again as a single in late 1955, this time credited to The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group. On the single release, side A was “Rock Island Line,” while side B was “John Henry.”

Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” begins with a monologue about a train engineer and a depot toll collector, then speeds up into an up-tempo, infectious ditty, which proved extremely popular. The single went to number eight on the U.K. pop charts, but was as influential as most number- one hits. In an era when pop music was highly arranged and complex, the do-it-yourself skiffle sound was inspirational to thousands of young people who wanted to make their own music.

A skiffle craze began, which included such groups as The Quarrymen (which became The Beatles) and The Detours (which became The Who). Other notable skiffle musicians included Jimmy Page (later of Led Zeppelin), Martin Carthy (later of Steeleye Span), Dave Gilmour (later of Pink Floyd), Mark Knopfler (later of Dire Straits), and many others. Indeed, the skiffle movement, which started with “Rock Island Line,” prefigured both the British rock-and-roll scene and the English folk scene, putting guitars in the hands of numerous players and teaching them to love American blues music.

Lonnie Donegan’s rendition of “Rock Island Line” is clearly derived from Lead Belly’s. In fact, the monologue with which Donegan begins the song seems to have been written by Lead Belly for his own version. The AFC Archive does include a recording of Lead Belly performing “Rock Island Line,” but this is probably not the one Donegan heard; Lead Belly made commercial recordings of the song in the 1940s, which were widely available. Still, the AFC Archive is the ultimate source of Donegan’s version, because it was the source Lead Belly himself used.

Lead Belly was traveling with John Lomax in September and October 1934, and was present when Lomax recorded “Rock Island Line” from two different groups of convicts. These are the first known recordings of the song, and it was from these recordings that Lead Belly himself learned it. These field recordings are a cappella harmony renditions, and Lead Belly added both the monologue and the guitar accompaniment, both of which clearly influenced Donegan.

Thus, this is really a double adaptation, and Lead Belly was as much an innovator as Donegan. The
traditional words and melody, however, are owed to the Arkansas convicts of 1934, led by a convicted burglar named Kelly Pace, and to the recordings preserved by the AFC Archive.