There is a war going on for the soul of humanity, a war between the sacred and the profane, between God and the devil. At least, that’s how a good many blues songs tell the story. Filled with righteous men and gamblers, demons and saints, the history of the blues is an overwhelming mixture of subversive experiences, bitter truths and acoustic guitar. Going back over 100 years, these sounds have been documenting the lives of people confronted with difficult situations that often result in calamitous consequences. It’s a dark and ruthless world where the strong and cunning survive and the weak and goodhearted fall by the wayside.
Among the men and women who framed this bold and merciless aesthetic was Huddie William Ledbetter (AKA Lead Belly), who found fame and recognition from behind the bars of Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana. Known for his commanding voice and the natural proficiency he displayed on the 12-string guitar, Lead Belly seemed to evoke the elemental nature of this music better than most of his blues peers. He poured his soul into his songs, and they evinced a broad determination in the face of enormous obstacles. His work is ghostly and possesses an emotional intangibility that breaks upon the air with each syllable sung.
Born on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, in 1888 (or 1889, depending on which census you look at), Lead Belly was the son of Wesley Ledbetter and Sallie Brown. After his birth, they married and moved their small family to Bowie County, Texas. He was constantly surrounded by musicians and found himself work as a “musicianer” in the alleyways of St. Paul’s Bottoms, a red-light district of some notoriety located close to Shreveport.
He developed a broad musical style, shaped by the various sounds he heard and the sights he experienced while performing on the streets. Of particular interest is the time he spent on Shreveport’s Fannin Street, a section of the Bottoms where a large collection of brothels, bars and dance halls were strung together like Christmas lights, waiting for money to be spent and music to be played.
After his brief first marriage to Aletha Henderson, he decided to leave home and make his way as a guitarist and wandering laborer, leaving at least two children back in Texas. With an accordion, the first instrument he owned, given to him by his uncle, he set out to discover the world around him. Eventually, he began performing with a 12-string guitar. He composed his first original song, “The Titanic,” in April 1912 on the 12-string and wound up playing alongside noted bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson for a time as he skirted around Dallas.
In 1915, he was convicted of carrying a gun and sentenced to work on the Harrison County chain gang. He escaped but was captured in 1918 and sent to the Imperial Farm in Sugar Land, Texas, after being arrested for killing one of his relatives. He served seven years of his sentence and was paroled by Gov. Pat Morris Neff after writing a song to plead his case. But he was sent back to jail in 1930 for attempting to stab a white man during a fight.
And it was there on Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm that he first came into contact with folk archivists John and Alan Lomax. They had come to record various inmates performing songs, but they found a truly remarkable voice and strength in Ledbetter.
Through his relationship with the Lomaxes, Lead Belly recorded a number of songs for various labels, including nearly 40 sides for the American Recording Co., although many of these songs were never released during his lifetime. The tracks that had been recorded at the prison were eventually collected and released in a six-album set as “The Library of Congress Recordings”-many old blues and folk singers were given these types of recording releases, as there was little in the way of full-length records that could be built from just a handful of singles.
But the first volume, “Midnight Special,” is a deliriously forlorn and insightful take on classic blues tropes that stands as one of the quintessential statements from the artist. The songs that populate this collection include “Irene,” “Red River” and “Take a Whiff on Me,” tracks that would go on to become intrinsically linked with his name. These songs feel fully lived in and emotionally vested, a musical odyssey through a hard life and an exploration of the twists and turns that brought Lead Belly to prison. He knew that he had made some bad choices, and this awareness is bred into every pluck and strum. He couldn’t take it all back, but he could own up to it through his music.
These dark thoughts and demons pervade his work, giving each song a craggy and feral nature. But Lead Belly also used music to approach and overcome these feelings. Songs that feel like undiluted catharses-such as “Midnight Special” and “Roberta”-give brief glimpses into his attempts at reconciling his caustic past with the potential for a contented future. There were no constants in his life as a musician, and these tracks bear out that frustration. There are so many nuances and details that each song takes on a life of its own, presenting a series of lyrical dalliances that meander through a wasteland of unguided thought.
Throughout his career, Lead Belly careened through a handful of genres and tied all his work together through his cavernous voice and reckless creativity. Demons were exorcised and love was torn apart under the guise of the blues. He gives us a look into a world that is unfamiliar and fascinating, a life of love and heartache and dire absolution. He wasn’t simply singing; he was painfully carving the intricate details and history of the blues into his heart. And across “Midnight Special,” we are privy to this shattering act of musical bloodletting.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.