Lead Belly, Odetta and Josh White: American Folk Profiles

Lead Belly, Odetta and Josh White: American Folk Profiles

In contemporary American society, when we think of folk music we think of country, bluegrass, singer-songwriters…and white people. Folk has come to be known as a white tradition, but this simply isn’t the case. This common modern misconception robs us of a wealth of wonderful music, simplifying the American heritage to a singular experience. While people in the Appalachians were singing “Barbra Allen,” folks escaping the evils of slavery were singing songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and “Wade in the Water.” It would be foolish to forget any of these songs or neglect to recognize gospel, blues and spirituals as equal components of the American folk tradition along with country, bluegrass, etc. They are all American genres, telling stories of Americans, through their struggles and triumphs, all of which played a role in shaping the American musical landscape of today.

In honor of Black History month, I would like to highlight three of my favorite African American folk heroes. Each told stories of the common man and passed on traditional songs from many aspects of American society. More importantly, each had a profound influence on American folk music and music in general.

Lead Belly
Huddie (pronounced HUGH-dee) Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was born January 20, 1889 near Shreveport, Louisiana. While he could play six-string guitar, mandolin, accordion and piano, he is best known for playing the twelve-string guitar. Lead Belly recorded traditional songs and also wrote his own. He is often credited with writing the song “In the Pines” (also seen as “Black Girl” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”), and while he is not the author of the song (it was first seen in print years before his birth), he did record it over a dozen times and is at least partially responsible for its popularity. “In the Pines” has been covered by everyone from Joan Baez to Nirvana. Lead Belly often worked as a laborer to support himself and his music. His experience both in the fields and working on the rail roads are evident in his songs. If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Jerk,” then you’ve heard Lead Belly’s tune “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” His recordings often feature his famous “haah” grunt. Songs like “Take This Hammer” feature this characteristic vocal accent, which Lead Belly has said was the noise workers made every time their hammers fell. He also sang and recorded children’s songs. “Sally Walker” is sung while children play a game. In the song, Sally “flies to the east/flies to the west/flies to the one she loves the best,” a lyric which always makes me think of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”

Lead Belly was known to have had quite a temper and was prone to fighting, getting in trouble with the law more than once. Strangely enough, one of his prison stays ended up leading to his discovery. While in prison in the early 1930‘s, he was recorded by John and Allen Lomax for the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes brought him to New York and he was received well by audiences. While there, he was able to play and collaborate with other notable folk artists like Woody Guthrie and a young Pete Seeger. The Weavers (a folk quartet featuring Seeger) recorded Lead Belly’s “Good Night, Irene” and it reached #1 on the charts. Lead Belly’s songs continue to be covered by a wide variety of artists and you’d be hard-pressed to find any singers from the 1960s folk revival who didn’t list Lead Belly among their influences.

Many recordings of Lead Belly are still available for purchase, including The Lomax recordings as well as recordings by Moses Asch. I, personally, have some of the Asch recordings and can’t recommend them highly enough. If you are like me and like to know who influenced great artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, you must have some Lead Belly in your collection.


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The first time I saw the name Odetta was when I was reading a Bob Dylan biography. Had I been smart, I would have immediately bought whatever Odetta recordings I could find. Instead, it took a few years before I finally got a compilation. I am now convinced that any folkie’s collection is incomplete without at least one Odetta album Buy Cialis.

Odetta was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was six years old. She showed interest in music early on and her mother worked hard to provide the money to put her through classical vocal training. In her later teen years, she became involved in musical theater, eventually discovering the then growing folk movement. In 1953 she went to New York, and by 1954, had released her first solo album. She sang with Harry Belafonte, appearing with him on his television show “Tonight with Belafonte” and their recording of “There’s a Hole in My Bucket” reached #32 in the UK Charts in 1961.

Odetta was an activist for human rights and is sometimes referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” She is often recognized for her performance of “O Freedom” at the 1963 March on Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her “The Queen of American folk music.” In 1999 she was awarded the National Endowment for Arts’ Medal of the Arts.

I highly recommend that anyone purchase a copy of the compilation “Odetta: Tradition Masters Series.” Containing a generous thirty-one tracks, it shows Odetta’s wide musical range. While some these days might describe her voice as a “take it or leave it” sound, it’s power is undeniable. She sings each song with the touch of an artist, giving it exactly the sound it needs. Her classical training is often evident in her singing, particularly in her renditions of “Santy Anno,” and “Deep Blue Sea.” She also displays a more soulful, earthy sound in songs like “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and “Timber.” Her arrangements do each song justice and are never over done. This recording is a great addition to any folk collection.

Josh White
After I purchased the above mentioned Odetta album, I became a bit obsessed with her cover of “Timber.” The song was so fantastic, I decided to research it further. I am certainly glad that I did because I discovered an artist I had never heard talked about who quickly became one of my favorites.

Josh White (who also recorded under the names Tippy Barton and Pinewood Tom) was a singer, guitarist, actor and civil rights activist. He recorded extremely popular “race records” in the 1920s and 30s, but his career was damaged in the 1950s due to being black listed. He was not a Communist, but because of being outspoken against segregation and in favor of international human rights, he was labeled as such. Interestingly enough, despite this label and suspicions of Communist sympathies, White was a close friend to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, having been dubbed the “Presidential Minstrel.” Thankfully, with the rise of the 60’s folk revival, White regained mainstream recognition in the US, and was once again one of the most popular folk acts in America. Sadly, he died in 1969 while undergoing heart surgery. Though being well recognized in his hay day, White seems to be relatively unknown among the current generation. I find this to be quite disappointing and it’s a bit of a personal mission of mine to introduce my contemporaries to his astounding and vast body of work.

White’s career has been influential on many important artists. Harry Belafonte, perhaps one of the most notable, even copied White’s look while performing–a button-up shirt with the first few buttons un-buttoned. While White played many folk and gospel songs, he was perhaps most influential as a blues artist, particularly Piedmont blues. His guitar playing style is quite remarkable and influenced the likes of Elvis Presley and Jack White.

As an introduction to White’s work, I recommend a compilation called “Josh at Midnight.” It contains some of his most notable songs, including “St. James Infirmary” and “One Meat Ball.” It also includes several tracks that feature performing and writing companion, Sam Gary. My personal favorite on the album is “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed.” The track “Jelly, Jelly!” (written by Earl Hines and BIlly Eckstine) is interesting because it has fairly explicit lyrics for it’s time, including a line about a “big brass bed.” Sound familiar, Dylan fans? If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, iTunes also has a six volume set that contains recordings spanning from 1929 to 1945.

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One Response to Lead Belly, Odetta and Josh White: American Folk Profiles

  1. Annyole says:

    i’m working on my new ‘march on washington’ blog that includes a page listing folk singers and the songs they performed.
    i got josh white on the list but can’t find the name of the song he performed or a clip of his performance.
    Can you help me? ann

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