TunesDay: America singing 2: goodnight, Irene, goin' down to the crossroads…

Most music historians explain the origins of rock music as the gradual blending of Southern blues (both Mississippi Delta based acoustic style and Chicago electrified) with country/western music as codified by Nashville. This over facile explanation has always seemed insufficient – hence the plethora of “(name your)-rock” divisions within rock music – like “rockabilly” (pictured at left being performed by its foremost practitioner).

This week we talk about blues. And about two giants to whom rock, that most “rebellious” of music, owes just about everything….

Huddie Ledbetter’s catalog reads like the history of both folk and rock (Hey, that would be be “folk-rock,” wouldn’t it?). But no one thinks of Leadbelly, as he’s more commonly known, as anything but a blues man. Here’s a short (and incomplete) list of his “greatest hits”: “Rock Island Line,” “Good Night, Irene,” “Midnight Special,” “Gallows Pole,” “Black Betty,” and “Cotton Fields.”

Feel free to say “Wow” to yourself here. I’ll wait. (If you’d like to hear Leadbelly singing some of these tunes, go here.)

But it’s not simply that Leadbelly wrote songs that have been covered by artists of all stripes (I’m particularly fond of The Beach Boys'[!] version of “Cotton Fields”).  Like all great folk artists, Huddie Ledbetter explored the issues that affected his life and the lives of those around him: “Cotton Fields” looked at his youth in the sharecropping culture of Louisiana; “Rock Island Line” explored the railroad life; “Gallis (Gallows) Pole” looks at the criminal life from the point of view of the criminal – a view Leadbelly knew all too well, as he would freely admit. His songs are chronicles of the poor, the dispossessed – those downrodden because of their poverty, their race, all those things that prevented them access to what matters in America – money and power.

And like other great artists, Leadbelly’s influence extended far beyond his music. Think about this for a moment:

Lonnie Donegan recorded a cover of “Rock Island Line” that ignited a skiffle music craze in England. One of those caught up in that craze was a kid named John Lennon. He formed a group called The Quarrymen. One of his bandmates introduced him to a kid named Paul McCartney who so impressed Lennon that he asked McCartney to join his band. McCartney insisted they bring in a younger friend of his – one George Harrison. So we owe Leadbelly, at least indirectly, for – The Beatles.


The other side of the coin from Leadbelly might be that other sublime influence on rock, the brooding poet Robert Johnson.  As wild and sometimes troubling as Leadbelly’s life was, it is well documented.

Johnson is the shadow man, the mysterious figure whose brief life (he died, probably poisoned by a jealous husband, at 27) and mysterious death are the stuff of legend, and whose songs explore American preoccupations with the world, the flesh, and the devil.  In fact, the most famous of his songs, “Crossroads Blues,” is the story of a bargain with the devil – a bargain Johnson himself is supposed to have made that gave him his incredible ability to play guitar.

Johnson’s songs focus on typically American preoccupations: “Terraplane Blues” and “Phonograph Blues” are about consumer desires; “They’re Red Hot” and “Malted Milk” are about the joys of food; “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Love in Vain,” and “Steady Rollin’ Man” are about the flesh and its pleasures and pains. Johnson chronicles the nature of America – its appetites, its follies – as incisively as his contemporaries Dos Passos or Steinbeck.

The list of his admirers and copiers is long and distinguished – Cream, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin learned his music and brought it back to us in a form more palatable to an America that originally treated his work as “race music.”  Jeff Healey, Keb’ Mo’, Bonnie Raitt, and The Chili Peppers have continued to hold Johnson up as the important chronicler of the American experience that he is.

His insights into the American – and human – condition make him as important to our music as Bernstein or Dylan. His legacy continues to haunt American music.

(Next Time: A.P., Woody, Jimmy, Pete, and Bob….)

4 replies »

  1. That was great, thanks for the link.

    I hope your students appreciate your brain and pen. 😉

    …trust you to get the Beatles in there!

  2. Don’t forget the raw sexuality that runs like a river through the songs of both of those men. Many of the blues men were every bit as nasty as hip-hop artists, they just found different words.

    Though “Little Red Rooster” was not written by either RJ or Leadbelly, it is one of the best examples. It sounds like a barnyard tune until you learn that Little Red Rooster was the name of an over the counter impotence pill of the time…and that makes the song all about not being able to get it up.

  3. As a stone blues freak, I never really considered Leadbelly blues. That said, every time I hear him sing I’m astonished. There’s never been anybody like him. Nothing about him is dated. Kids need to be exposed to him, his voice, and his 12-string.

    On the other hand, I’ve always felt we had Robert Johnson shoved down our throats as the paragon of blues. I’ve tried and tried but could never get myself to like him. He’s way too speeded up and tense to represent the depth and unhurried expressiveness that’s at the heart of the blues.