Folk Music Music Meets Grunge

As a “wannabe” angsty, young 8th grade student, “MTV Unplugged in New York” by Nirvana was naturally one of my all time favorite albums. Whether it was the infectious bassline of “Come As You Are,” the absurdity of “Dumb,” or the haunting string arrangements found throughout “Man Who Sold the World,” each track managed to capture the various heartthrobs of a fourteen year old; but none hit me quite as hard as the show’s closing piece, “Where Did You Sleep At Night.” The song encapsulates a vague description of deceit, murder, and sorrow which is inspired and rooted in the 1944 recording by the equally soulful and troubled Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, a virtuosic 12-string blues and folk guitar player.

While there have been an endless supply of covers and renditions of this folk tune by artists of notable merit (including Dolly Parton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Chet Atkins), few have managed to achieve the emotional integrity and commercial success of Leadbelly and Nirvana’s recording, and I believe that, through the core elements of “folk” music, and the personal backgrounds of the artists, a connection can be made between the two interpretations.

NIRVANA:                       https://youtu.be/iUSW7dYZM9w 

LEADBELLY:                   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsfcUZBMSSg

From the work of the Lomax family to the later tunes of Bob Dylan, folk songs have transformed from a collection of songs that define a culture or generation to the production of individual songs that center around the sentiments and reactions of the performer. Both Nirvana’s 1994 and Leadbelly’s 1944 recording of “Where Did You Sleep At Night” embody the latter of the stages. Using a lyrically simplified version of the original tune, “In the Pines,” which dates back to the 1870’s Southern Appalachian region, Cobain and Ledbetter achieve impassive recording style that is rooted not in the story, but in the personal and stony mood behind the piece. While Leadbelly employs a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, deadpan call-and-response, and free, vibrato filled vocals, Cobain implements a sparse, electric guitar-string arrangement, dry, hoarse vocals, and stark cadences that reach a similar aura of sheer misery and suffering. By delivering personal and unique renditions of the same folk tune, Leadbelly and Cobain successfully open themselves up to any and all listeners, accessing the bare human connection that lies at the heart of the American folk movement.

Additionally, in a musical genre that often undergoes revivalist movements, artists must consistently be able to deliver unique and intimate takes on “traditional folk tunes.” When analyzing the personal backgrounds of Leadbelly and Cobain, parallels can be drawn that inevitably contribute to their passionate and distinctive performances. Cobain, who lived a tragic life of depression and severe drug abuse, had consistent run-ins with the law, while Leadbelly was incarcerated multiple times, pleading guilty for charges of murder and attempted murder. After considering the half-century time gap and cultural differences between the two artists, it would be ridiculous to compare any background information, however, a common coping mechanism exists in both individual accounts: music. After receiving a guitar from his uncle at the age of twelve, Cobain used music throughout his life to combat and express himself through any personal, family, and drug related obstacles. Similarly, Leadbelly used music as a means to escape and assert his redefined self after years spent in various prisons. In a 1954 article for the Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes summarizes Leadbelly’s musical journey.

“Well, I guess you know there was once a singer named Leadbelly, and he was a penitentiary boy, and he sang his way free. I guess you know he got locked up again, but he got out singing. And he sang songs from here to yonder. He sang himself great. He sang himself famous.”

https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/hnpchicagodefender/docview/492889401/fulltextPDF/586FDC9CDF9142A0PQ/1?accountid=351

Through these mental and life altering difficulties, Leadbelly and Cobain both created profound and unique music that inspired and touched the hearts of their respective audiences. One only needs to go as far as a Southern Appalachian tune such as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” to see the emotional core that connects an entire community in a folk-based tradition.

 

SOURCES

Bibek Acharya. “Where did you sleep last night-Nirvana-MTV unplugged.” Youtube. Dec. 11, 2016. Accessed October 16, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUSW7dYZM9w

“Kurt Cobain.” Biography.com. April 28, 2017. Accessed October 16, 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/kurt-cobain-9542179.

Hughes, L. (1954, Sep 04). Slavery and leadbelly are gone, but the old songs go singing on. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/docview/492889401?accountid=351

Sessionsinthedesert. “Leadbelly – house of the rising sun.” YouTube. March 08, 2008. Accessed October 16, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5tOpyipNJs.

Weisbard;, Eric. “A Simple Song That Lives Beyond Time.” The New York Times. November 12, 1994. Accessed October 16, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/13/arts/pop-music-a-simple-song-that-lives-beyond-time.html?pagewanted=all.

Langston Hughes on African American folk

It isn’t very often in history that we read African American views on African American music. Langston Hughes, who wrote a column for an African American newspaper called The Chicago Defender, published several articles reclaiming African American folk music after jazz, the blues, and really much of American folk music was influenced by that tradition and style. In his poetic storytelling, and sometimes angry tone, Hughes gets at an issue of American music-that it has consistently turned African American folk music tradition into popular music, entertainment, etc. and reaped the monetary benefits while casting authenticity aside.

His article titled “Slavery and Leadbelly are Gone, But the Old Songs Go Singing on,” complains that African Americans have forgotten their slave heritage. “In 1963 we will be one hundred years free. Have you forgotten that you were once a slave? Is it a memory you do not want to remember?” On one hand, singers like Leadbelly could be popular because there was a certain time distance from slavery so that musicians weren’t judged “Uncle Toms.”[1] On the other hand, there is some tension as to how the folk music out of the slave tradition should be remembered, because clearly Leadbelly’s songs that embody oppression and images of slavery remember it much differently than revivals of the blues and spirituals during the 50s and 60s.

slavery and leadbelly are gone

Chicago Defender, 1954 click image for linked article [3]

In another issue, “The Influence of Negro Music On American Entertainment,” Hughes celebrates the pervasiveness of African American folk music in American music. “The Negro has influenced all of American popular song and dance, and that influence has been on the whole, joyous and sound…America’s music is soaked in our rhythms.” It is no coincidence that Langston Hughes was writing during the civil rights movement, when African Americans often re-claimed and re-defined their identity in an effort to create unity and political momentum.[2] Many of the folk musicians singing about civil rights, however, were white musicians making money off a style that used the folk idiom to appeal to the popular masses. Langston Hughes is quick to criticize this, calling into question the definition of folk music, how it is used, how it is remembered, and who has the right and responsibility to perform it.

langston hughes

Chicago Defender, 1953 click image for linked article [4]

[1] Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2001, 746.

[2] Reebee Garofalo, “Popular Music and the Civil Rights Movement,” Rockin the Boat: mass music and mass movements, ed. Reebee Garofalo, Boston: South End Press, 1992.

[3] Langston Hughes, “Slavery and Leadbelly are Gone, but the Old Songs Go Singing On,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Sep 04, 1954, http://search.proquest.com/docview/492889401?accountid=351.

[4] Langston Hughes, “The Influence of Negro Music on American Entertainment,” Chicago Defender (National Edition),(1921-1967), Apr 25, 1953, http://search.proquest.com/docview/492962325?accountid=351.

The Timeless Light of the “Midnight Special”

When John and Alan Lomax visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary of Angola, Louisiana in July of 1933 they were in search of folksongs. Little did they know that they would instead come across a musical star, whose treatment of a popular prison song would transcend the boundary between folk and pop styles. The musician was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, and the song was “Midnight Special”.

Angola, Louisiana prison compound. Leadbelly in the foreground.

Angola, Louisiana prison compound, July 1933. Leadbelly in the foreground.

Born in the late 1880’s to the oppressive cotton fields of Louisiana, Ledbetter feared only one thing: failure. It was from this determination that he received the nickname “Lead Belly”, as he could outwork, outfight, and out-sing anyone who dared challenge him. “I wants to be the best – the king” he would say. He even went so far as to call himself “The King of the Twelve-String Guitar”, a talent that he used to exploit the Texas prison system he entered in 1917 on a thirty year sentence for assault. He famously used his musical talent to garner the attention of Texas Governor Pat Neff, who pardoned and released Ledbetter from prison in 1925.

It was in this same spirit that he was brought to the Lomax’s attention in 1933. Incarcerated once again for assault, Ledbetter sufficiently wooed the Lomax’s that they convinced Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen to pardon Ledbetter. Thereafter, he worked as John Lomax’s chauffeur and relocated to the Northeastern United States, often traveling to Washington D.C. to record for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.

Volume I of the LOC Lead Belly collection.

Midnight Special as it appears in "The Leadbelly Songbook"

Midnight Special as it appears in “The Leadbelly Songbook”

Midnight Special by Lead Belly, Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196310/

Volume I of the LOC collection is titled “Midnight Special”, and though it contains memorable treatments of many classic folk-tunes, the titular song is Ledbetter’s most famous and influential adaptation. Thought to originate among prisoners in the South, the refrain of the song references a passenger train of the same name, the light of which shone into cells as it passed by:

Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,                                                                Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me.

If the “ever-loving light” of the train landed on a prisoner, the inmates believed that man would soon be set free.

When Alan Lomax first recorded Ledbetter’s version of the song he attributed the authorship to Ledbetter. However, this is fundamentally untrue. In addition to the fact that it was a popular prison song, it had been recorded commercially by Sam Collins as the “Midnight Special Blues” in 1927. His version seems much more like an extemporaneous performance of a folk song, while Ledbetter’s is a precise arrangement of the melody, harmonic progression, and guitar accompaniment.

In this vein, it may be fair to say that Lead Belly didn’t write the song, but did ‘compose’ a version of it that achieved mass popularity and lasting influence in the public conception, as heard in versions by Creedence Clearwater Revival….

…. and ABBA.

While both versions seem to emerge from Ledbetter’s arrangement, the ABBA version is particularly notable due to its seemingly contradictory nature: why is a Swedish pop group performing an African American prison song? According to the official ABBA website, this song was performed as part of a medley of American folk songs on a charity record the group contributed to in 1975. The artists carefully selected songs that “were in the public domain as far as copyright was concerned” in order to avoid composer royalties. Despite this, the site recognizes Ledbetter’s “distinctive arrangement of the song that made it truly famous” as the inspiration for this version.

To conclude, “Midnight Special” exemplifies a major problem regarding folk music and its chronicling: differentiating between the folk song and popular versions. When do we lend credit to individuals and their renderings? How do we identify legitimate folk versions? While these questions may be difficult to answer, they ought to be considered as we examine popular reactions to folk music.