Lead Belly refers to an American musician named Huddie William Ledbetter. He tends to be known for his singing. However, he was also a multi-instrumentalist who could play the twelve-string guitar and several other instruments. Lead Belly was active for most of the first half of the 20th century. During that time, he recorded numerous songs. Some of those are now considered standards, thus speaking volumes about the impact that he has had on American music.
Here is our opinion of the ten best Lead Belly songs ever released:
10. “The Gallis Pole”
“The Gallis Pole” makes more sense when one realizes it’s referring to a place where an executioner would hang people. This is a folk song in which a young man or woman asks for someone to buy their freedom from their sentence. Some versions see them survive. In contrast, others are downright cruel. Lead Belly’s version moves between these two extremes. The narrator’s loved ones work to save him. Even so, some show up to watch him hang, which must be a bitter revelation.
9. “Out On the Western Plain”
Lead Belly was years into his career when Arizona and New Mexico were admitted into the union in 1912. As such, the Wild West was much closer to him than us. That said, it’s interesting to note that this song is on the more fantastic side of things. Something that adds to rather than detracts from its enjoyability.
8. “Bourgeois Blues”
Unsurprisingly, Lead Billy had political opinions. If anything, it would be stranger if he didn’t, considering the time and place he lived in. Chances are good that interested individuals can guess this song was influenced by Lead Belly’s personal experiences when visiting Washington, D.C. However, the choice of “bourgeois” is a curious one. Once upon a time, it referred to the merchants that belonged to neither the upper nor the lower classes in the medieval era. Later, that class surged to the forefront of society because of the Industrial Revolution, with the result that “bourgeois” became one of the most politically charged terms of recent centuries. Everyone would’ve been aware, so it seems safe to say that the choice of words was no coincidence.
7. “Take This Hammer”
Abolition ended slavery but not forced labor extracted from convicts. “Take This Hammer” is a work song from that context. Lead Belly had personal experience with forced labor because he was in prison during much of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, it’s common speculation that he was released early in the 1930s because his music had become well-known.
6. “Boll Weevil”
The boll weevil is a beetle that eats cotton plants. It plays a surprisingly significant role in American culture because it made its way to the United States in the late 19th century. Subsequently, it caused cotton production in the country to plummet until the Boll Weevil Eradication Program started in the late 20th century. Funny enough, works referencing the boll weevils aren’t always negative because everything turned out better in the long run in some cases. That said, this song is focused on how the beetle impacted people on the ground.
5. “Black Betty”
“Black Betty” is a well-known folk song. It’s sometimes credited to Lead Belly. However, others think he was responsible for popularizing rather than writing it. Whatever the case, “Black Betty” has room for interpretation because its title can refer to many things. Considering Lead Belly’s time in prison, the likeliest answer seems to be a whip. If so, that would fit the lyrics, even though it would also give the latter a somewhat sardonic air.
4. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
This song has also been credited to Lead Belly. A fact that says much about the popularity of his version while saying little. Initially, the song seems to be about a man and a woman separated from one another for uncertain reasons. Soon enough, things take a creepier turn when one realizes that the husband was murdered at some point. Regardless, Lead Belly recorded one of the most iconic versions of the song, which is worth listening to even if interested individuals prefer one of the others.
3. “Goodnight, Irene”
“Goodnight, Irene” has predecessors. Lead Belly has stated as much. Despite this, he made it his own by changing it and interpreting it to his liking. The narrator still loves his titular wife, but it’s clear that he’s miserable. After all, he’s hit the point of voicing his thoughts of suicide, which don’t say good things about his state of mind.
2. “Midnight Special”
“Midnight Special” is yet another song influenced by Lead Belly’s time in prison. Indeed, he recorded it while he was at Angola Prison, meaning that this is the recording that might’ve been responsible for his early release. Everyone agrees that the “Midnight Special” refers to a train that once ran between Chicago and St. Louis. They differ on what this train meant for the prisoners singing about it. Some think it was a sign of hope because a train was theoretically something that could take them away. Others have a darker take in that the train could liberate them from their woes by running them over. Whatever the case, “Midnight Special” is a classic for good reason.
1. “Cotton Fields”
“Cotton Fields” is known to have been one of the songs that Lead Belly wrote and recorded. Its narrator reminisces about the place he came from. Since then, “Cotton Fields” has become popular enough to be covered by everyone from Elton John to The Muppet Show. Sometimes, artists have remained more or less faithful to the original lyrics, even when they make no sense in their new context. Other times, those covering the song have been much more willing to make changes.
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