Leadbelly - A Secret History Of Rock And Roll



Seminal American folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (otherwise known as Lead Belly) had a major influence on popular music on both sides of the Atlantic during the 20th Century. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Nirvana and even ABBA have all cited him as an influence yet he remains far from a household name. In the week of the 60th anniversary of his death (6 December), Eric Burdon of The Animals examines his life, music and legacy.

From humble beginnings singing work songs as he picked cotton in the fields of Louisiana, to his time as a shining star in the emerging 1930s New York folk scene, Lead Belly had a broad repertoire which included folk, blues and protest songs. Popular songs he performed, long before the big names of today, include Goodnight Irene, House Of The Rising Sun and Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Part one traces Lead Belly's roots back to the American Deep South of the late 1800s where he was born into a farming family on the borders of Louisiana and Texas. Picking cotton was the main trade of the time and it was while picking cotton that Huddie became acquainted with some of the songs for which he'd eventually become famous.

In this episode, singer Arlo Guthrie (son of Lead Belly's close friend Woody Guthrie) examines how his tough life influenced much of his early musical repertoire. Arlo argues that music played an even bigger part in peoples' daily lives in the late 1800s than it does today, especially within America's impoverished black communities. Lead Belly would pick up songs like a sponge" as he travelled the Deep South and re-work them.

Lead Belly did have a violent streak and this landed him in jail for a third of his adult life. But far from hampering his love of music, prison and his experiences on the chain gangs would also become another major source of musical inspiration.

Songs discussed in part one include Black Betty, Pick a Bale of Cotton, Cotton Fields (which would later be popularised by The Beach Boys), CC Ryder, Gallis Pole, Midnight Special and House of the Rising Sun, which was eventually made world famous by Eric Burdon and The Animals.

This series includes interviews and recollections from the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Lonnie Donegan and Lead Belly's niece Tiny Robinson.

Eric Burdon examines the life, music and legacy of Lead Belly, 60 years after his death."

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Eric Burdon concludes his examination of the life, music and legacy of seminal American folk singer Huddie (Lead Belly) Ledbetter who had a major influence on popular music on both sides of the Atlantic during the 20th Century.

Part two looks at how Lead Belly's violent streak landed him in serious trouble on several occasions. In 1918 he killed a man and was jailed for murder for 30 years but, as legend would have it, he managed to sing himself out of prison not once but twice. On the second occasion though, his freedom probably had far more to do with prison overcrowding than it did with his musical talents!

But it was his time in prison in the 1930s that would help him land the big time. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax had been touring jails recording prison songs for the Library of Congress when they discovered Lead Belly. On his release, they introduced him to the New York folk scene and the King of the 12 string guitar" would record for a variety of record labels; become known for a broad range of folk, blues and protest songs; and even present his own radio show.

Despite his tough upbringing, a reputation for womanising and his violent streak, Lead Belly had a softer side too. Children's songs were very much part of his repetoire, which included Skip To My Lou and Ha Ha This-Away.

Lead Belly died in 1949 but his legacy lives on. Within months of his death, Pete Seeger and the Weavers had released Goodnight Irene and his influence would soon seep into swing, skiffle and later rock and roll.

Among those celebrating the life and times of Lead Belly in part two are: Bryan Ferry; Nile Rodgers; Arlo Guthrie; Lead Belly's relatives Tiny Robinson and Alvin Singh, British Sea Power and the UK musician and artist Billy Childish.

The series also includes archive of Lead Belly singing to children, performing on his 1940s WNYC radio show (Folk Songs Of America), as well as rare archive interviews with his producer Henrietta Yurchenco and Alan Lomax, the man who discovered Lead Belly.


Lead Belly - Frankie and Albert (from WNYC Radio archive)

Lead Belly - Goodnight, Irene

Lead Belly - John Henry

Johnny Cash - Pick a Bale of Cotton

Lead Belly - Aint it a shame to go fishing on a Sunday

Nirvana - Aint it a Shame

Lead Belly - Aint Going Down to the Well no More

Lead Belly - I'm on my Last Go Round

Lead Belly - Leaving Blues

Lead Belly - Leadbelly's Dance

Lead Belly - Frankie and Albert

Stevie Wonder - Frankie and Johnny

Lead Belly - Julianne Johnson

Lead Belly - Take This Hammer

Lead Belly - Matchbox Blues

Lead Belly - Go Down Old Hannah

Lead Belly - New York City

Woody Guthrie (with Lead Belly, Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry) - We Shall Be Free

Lead Belly - Hitler Song

Lead Belly - Bourgeois Blues

Lead Belly - Yellow Gal (from WNYC Radio archive)

Lead Belly - Skip to my Lou

Lead Belly - Ha, Ha, This-a-way

Lead Belly - Bye and Bye When the Morning Comes

The Weavers - Goodnight Irene

Bob Dylan - Song to Woody

Lead Belly - New Orleans Blues

The Animals - House of the Rising Sun

Lonnie Donegan - Rock Island Line

Lead Belly - Rock Island Line

Nirvana - Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Lead Belly - Black Girl.

Eric Burdon examines the life, music and legacy of Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter."