I figured that if Lead Belly were so great, he would have performed a concert at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds when I was a teenager, like Ratt and Loverboy and Night Ranger did. Or I would have worn his 3/4 sleeve baseball jersey to school every day, like I did with that awesome REO Speedwagon shirt from the Good Trouble tour. Or at least I would’ve found a stack of used cassettes on the shelf of my indie record store, right above the copy of Presence that nobody ever bought.
But no, Lead Belly never played the hallowed halls of Albuquerque’s Tingley Coliseum, I never wore his shirt to school, and his used cassettes never showed up at the local record stores. There were no references to him on The Scorpions’ Blackout or Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, and if neither Klaus Meine nor Bruce Dickinson were singing about Lead Belly, he probably wasn’t worth my time. So I never, ever, ever listened to his music. Even after I grew older and wiser and more musically intelligent than everyone else, Lead Belly just wasn’t worth it.
Boy, was I wrong. So fucking wrong.
I discovered Lead Belly on a CD called Classic Railroad Songs from Smithsonian Folkways that I’d checked out from the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. It was a song called Linin’ Track, and hearing it was like hearing a ray of sunlight. Assuming, of course, the sun has a really scraggly voice and sings a capella.
Linin’ Track is a pretty amazing song. It opens with a barbaric yawp that would’ve made Walt Whitman proud, and then it moves to a miserable trackbed in the South where prisoners work beneath the gaze of a cruel boss and the weight of an iron rail. The song is barely one minute long, but it accomplishes everything a song needs to be great.
One particularly interesting thing about the song, and about Lead Belly, wasn’t apparent until I’d listened a few dozen times. Lead Belly got rhythm, and I don’t mean that in a George and Ira Gershwin kind of way. When Lead Belly sings, you can picture the guys in the chain gang hammering on the tracks in unison. When Lead Belly sings, you can hear the trains that are going to pound over those tracks every day. When Lead Belly sings, you can hear the way the human heart moves: it speeds up and slows down, but it never breaks stride for even a moment.
This is a pretty major thing for me. I used to be one of those morons who believed that “good rhythm” meant a drummer could follow a click track. That’s a great quality if you want to play in Steely Dan. If you want to play music with soul, however, metronomic time isn’t all that important. If you’ve got rhythm, it doesn’t matter whether or not you play at exactly 120BPM. If you’ve got rhythm, you follow the beat to wherever it takes you. If you’ve got rhythm, then you embrace the fact that music and life speed up and slow down.
I learned all of that about Lead Belly by hearing one song on a compilation. Maybe all those musicians who were spending their time with Lead Belly while I was admiring my REO Speedwagon jersey in the mirror… maybe those cats knew what they were talking about. Maybe I was wrong and they were right. Could that be possible? Could Kurt Cobain know more about music than me?!?
It was time to find out for certain. I begged and pleaded until I got my hands on a stack of Lead Belly CDs. It was a bit overwhelming, actually. I didn’t know where to start. So I did what any lazy person would do: I picked the one with the fewest songs and put it in my CD player. That CD happened to be Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs from Smithsonian Folkways. Unfortunately, before I even pressed play, I ran into a problem.
I am a snob when it comes to music, but I am even more of a snob when it comes to spelling and grammar. It drove me absolutely crazy that, in my first attempt to listen to Lead Belly, he had suddenly become Leadbelly.
As any rock snob understands, knowing the correct name of an artist is crucial to maintaining one’s rank in the hierarchy of balding white guys whose brains are filled with inconsequential facts about bands that most people have never heard. I’m a man who appreciates the ludicrous spelling of Ludacris, and who would never conclude “Billy Squi” with an “re.” I not only know how to spell the imaginary German of “Einstürzende Neubauten,” but I know how to pronounce it. For God’s sake, I know where the exclamation point belongs in “Godspeed You! Black Emperor,” and I look down upon those who misplace it.
So what’s the deal with Lead Belly’s name? His real name was Huddie Ledbetter, which is a pretty awesome name in its own right. Apparently, he picked up his nickname at Sugar Land prison. It was a play on his last name that stemmed from his fellow convicts’ respect for his toughness. (Two other men at Sugar Land — Iron Head and Clear Rock — were also recorded by John Lomax, the anthropologist/musicologist who is credited with discovering Lead Belly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any recordings by convicts named Pansy Ass or Chicken Legs.) I’m not certain how the single word “Leadbelly” came to be.
Ledbetter’s tombstone lists him as Lead Belly, and the notes on the Smithsonian Folkways release Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy Vol. 1 state: “Lead Belly’s name has been frequently spelled Leadbelly over the years. We have spelled it Lead Belly at the request of the Ledbetter family. This is the way Lead Belly wanted it.” So if you’re one of the people who insists on calling him Leadbelly, just stop it. Nobody thinks you’re cool.
Once the spelling catastrophe was resolved, it was time to listen.
And my goodness, listening is good. In fact, it’s so good that I’m not even going to describe how good it is. I realize that’s kind of crappy of me, since you’ve invested all this time in reading my stupid little article, but words can’t do justice to Lead Belly’s music.
All I can say is that he’s not like anyone else you’ve heard. He’s raw but refined, serious but light-hearted, simple but deeply complex. His music is rich and complicated. Not like engineering or physics, but in the way that dirt is rich and complicated. We don’t really know where it came from or why it exists, but dirt is magic. Without dirt, there would be no life.
And not to be melodramatic, but that’s kind of how I see Lead Belly these days. I’ve been listening to his music for nearly three straight months, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I catch myself singing Stewball in the shower, and I whistle On A Monday when I’m buying my Purina Rock Snob Chow at the grocery store. I may have heard Goodnight Irene before, but I never really heard it until now. (I’m thankful for that, actually. It’s a gorgeous song, and I’m glad I didn’t have to try to block out the whitewashed recording by Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, or the godawful version that Bryan Ferry put out a few years ago.) I drive around town singing The Blood Done Sign My Name (Ain’t You Glad) as if it were some pop nugget by Justin Timberlake or Mika.
I guess this is my confession. I’ll probably have to resign from the Self-Righteous Rock Critics League of America, and all my indie-rock street cred is pretty much out the window. I am down amongst the ranks of the common man, with his American Idol and his Now That’s What I Call Music Vol. 212. But I don’t care. It’s not so bad down here at street level. Because down here, there’s dirt. Down here, I’ve got Lead Belly singing in my headphones. Down here, there’s a girl named Irene, and I’m really looking forward to telling her goodnight.
So happy birthday, Lead Belly. I hope this is the first of many years that I spend listening to your music.