Born Huddie Ledbetter in the late 1800s, folk and blues singer Lead Belly’s legacy is representative of an entire musical movement. His first works were documented by musicologists John and Alan Lomax and their “field recordings,” which featured him performing in unique settings, from pastures to porches. Those early recordings sparked a folk music revival in 1960s America and a blues music wave in 1960s United Kingdom.
During this span, up-and-coming artists like Jimmy Page studied the performer’s works closely, ultimately incorporating them into the music of his own band, Led Zeppelin. Lead Belly’s influence continued long after his passing, with one of the ’90s grunge music trend’s most memorable releases being a Ledbetter original (stay tuned for more on that).
Nowadays, the folk artist’s repertoire is recognized as some of America’s most culturally significant work of all time. A few of these originals might surprise you. Check out the best Lead Belly songs below.
10. Out on The Western Plains
In the 1930s, musicologists John and Alan Lomax set out on a journey across the American South to document the music of the times, often traveling to rural, off-the-beaten-path places to find unique musicians with interesting stories to tell. Along their travels, they came across Lead Belly and were entranced by his baritone pipes and commanding use of the 12-string guitar. The father and son duo quickly set up their recording equipment and recorded some of Lead Belly’s earliest works. This included the cowboy-themed number ‘Out on The Western Plains.’ The rollicking tune tells the story of a cattleman riding through the American desert, battling with outlaws like Jesse James and meeting western folk heroes like Wild Bill along the way. Several versions exist, but the most stirring one features nothing more than Lead Belly’s emotive vocals and a gentle acoustic downbeat, giving the vibe of a spoken word piece. Part of the chorus hook, “…come a cow cow yicki yicki yay,” features vernacular often utilized by cattlemen transporting livestock commodities. Irish musician Rory Gallagher released a cover in 1975. Similar to fans of other big name artists, people were surprised the cowboy work song wasn’t a Gallagher original. Once again, a new segment of the population had the pleasure of discovering the magic that is Lead Belly.
9. The Gallis Pole
Listening to Lead Belly’s body of work will give you many lessons on music history without you realizing it at first. As you inspect his songs closer, centuries of musical works are brought forth by the folk singer with dazzling performance. For ‘The Gallis Pole,’ Lead Belly recreates an ancient tale rooted in folklore, originally titled ‘The Maid Freed from The Gallows.’ The classical story revolves around a woman hoping to free herself from certain death at the hands of an executioner. As she waits for a loved one to come and pay off her debt, she pleads with the “hangman.” In Lead Belly’s more contemporary version, the main character could be a man or a woman, and his more open-ended lyrics convey a societal “execution” more than anything – an outcast who’s been relegated to the gallows of the world while lovers and family try and save him. ’70s rock pioneers Led Zeppelin were huge fans of the piece. Their guitarist Jimmy Page was a huge blues fan in general, and they covered this Ledbetter classic in 1970 and renamed it ‘Gallows Pole.’ From Irish country music fans to rock enthusiasts, Lead Belly’s work continues to be introduced to new fans via the works of music’s biggest contemporary acts.
8. Bourgeois Blues
One of Lead Belly’s most autobiographical tunes is also his most controversial. Much debate about ‘Bourgeois Blues’ has gone on for years. The folk singer wrote it during the height of his career with Alan Lomax while on a work trip in Washington, D.C.. Often categorized as a “blues protest song,” the tune does contain several blues elements. For instance, the chorus, “Lord, in a bourgeois town/ It’s a bourgeois town/ I got the bourgeois blues/ Gonna spread the news all around,” follows a classic lyrical blues formula. The verses feature anecdotal stories about the discrimination he and his wife experienced while visiting the nation’s capital. As he hammers on his 12-string, his emotional performance affects his playing, and for a second, you have to make sure it isn’t piano keys he’s banging on for the sheer amount of music coming from one instrument. Though some scholars suggest Lead Belly was commissioned to write the piece for political figures Lomax was involved with, and he may have received help with the lyrics (“Bourgeois” is a term originating from France and popularized in Russia that generally means “well-to-do” or “materialistic”), many agree no matter the circumstances, the powerful anthem will always stand as an important addition to the official record of American folk music.
7. Cotton Fields
A Lead Belly original, this feel-good country-folk song has been recorded by everyone from The Beach Boys to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Telling the story from a man’s perspective, the heavily nostalgic song finds the main character reminiscing about his mother as she would rock him “…in the cradle, in them old cotton fields back home.” The imagery conjures up flashes of old-timey southern life just before the industrial revolution. While cultures who lived in rural areas referenced in the song, from “Louisiana” to “Texarkana,” lived simple lives and oftentimes barely had enough money to get by, they placed a high value on hard work and family, resulting in a sense of pride conveyed in this song in particular. As our humble protagonist makes his way back to his hometown, he wonders what his family will say when they see him all grown up as he proclaims, “it sure feels good to breathe the air back home.” While this is recognized as an important work of folk music, it should also be recognized as one of the South’s most enduring, authentic anthems.
Recommended: Our pick of Creedence Clearwater songs.
6. Christmas Is A Coming
During his performing days, if he wasn’t traversing through Manhattan singing for well-to-do groups enthralled with the American folk movement, or if he wasn’t performing in a small-town music club in deep south America (trying his best not to get into a bar fight that would land him back in the slammer), he was participating in a series of children’s shows with his set lists geared towards younger audiences. The songs were all meant to not only educate up-and-coming generations about traditional folk and blues music, they were also meant to help them along as they faced the world and the many unpredictable situations that come with age. For ‘Christmas Is A Coming,’ this happy “ditty” centers around two boys who are friends and are giddy with anticipation over the Christmas holiday getting closer and closer. The song was originally recorded in the ’40s, but in 1999, Smithsonian Folkways, a nonprofit preserving the history and music of the genre, released a compilation called “Lead Belly Sings for Children,” and included this sweet song on the track listing.
5. (In New Orleans) House of The Rising Sun
In 1964, English rock band The Animals reached international fame with their hit ‘The House of The Rising Sun’ (their performance of the chart-topper on the Ed Sullivan Show is still incredibly moving), but long before the group released the track steeped in southern gothic style instrumentation and vocalist Eric Burdon’s flawless howling, Lead Belly recorded his own version. The American classic has supposedly been around since the 1920s. Its mysterious origin even inspired a book, Chasing The Rising Sun, featuring author Ted Anthony tracking down its beginnings. An edgy song about New Orleans’ most notorious brothel, the lyrics feature a main character singing to a young boy, warning him not to turn out like him and go down a path you can’t come back from, “…it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy. And God I know I’m one.” Despite heavyweight material, Lead Belly speeds up the tempo, adds a plucky bass line, and joyously sings about vice and “ruin” in a way that is still unmatched to this day.
Recommended: Our pick of New Orleans songs.
4. Goodnight Irene
A soulful yet heart-wrenching love story is told with Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight Irene.’ The folk singer makes brilliant use of scooped notes and full vibrato as he laments about a true love that got away. When The Lomaxes heard him sing for the first time in Louisiana, they knew this tune would be one of his most popular. When they brought him to New York to perform, it became his signature number. As part of The Lomax Collection, footage featured in this video is from one of many performances Lead Belly did on behalf of John and Alan Lomax as they traveled not only America, but the world as well, oftentimes documenting historical “folk song” works. As the bluesman sings to his wife Martha Promise, the haunting song takes on a more light-hearted feel, with romance now at its center.
3. Black Betty
A folk song that made its way to the New World as people migrated from Europe to America’s first colonies, much debate as to what ‘Black Betty’ is actually about has gone on for centuries. Benjamin Franklin once helped the case of those who say it’s about whiskey after publishing “The Drinker’s Dictionary” in a newspaper, citing “Black Betty” as a reference to hard liquor. As the song took shape in America, it became a prison work song inmates often sang as they lived out their hard labor sentences. The imagery eventually evolved to represent some of the country’s worst penitentiaries. Lead Belly may have heard this traditional song while serving time in Texas or Louisiana. He recorded the track a capella in 1939. And in 1977, ‘Black Betty’ reached mainstream chart success as Ram Jam’s only hit. The driving beat and gospel-tinged, half-screamed lyrics give the song a passionately spiritual undertone.
Recommended: Our pick of timeless gospel songs.
2. Midnight Special
A few different times in his life, Lead Belly found himself on the wrong side of the law. While doing time in one of America’s most notorious prisons in Texas, the folk singer heard the uplifting melody of ‘Midnight Special’ floating through the cell block one night. The historic folk song has been around as far back as America’s founding. Many different versions exist, but none so impactful as Lead Belly’s. For his own rendition, he focused on the life of an inmate at Imperial Prison in the early 1900s, one spent doing endless hard labor in their vast sugar fields. You might think that these conditions would keep the bluesman down, but despite immense suffering around him, he took it upon himself to be the bearer of joy amid horrendous conditions. He not only performed for fellow inmates every week, but his talents took him to the governor’s house on a regular basis. Eventually, Governor Neff was so moved by his songs, he pardoned him. For anyone else’s story, one miraculous escape from the penitentiary would have been enough. But this is Lead Belly we’re talking about, whose booming voice and life’s story always manage to go over the edge. ‘Midnight Special’ became the song that got him out of his second stint in the slammer. Musicologists John and Alan Lomax were visiting Angola Prison when they came across Lead Belly’s intense, bellowing performance. They successfully worked to get him out, and with their help, he became a folk star among cosmopolitan New York circles.
1. Black Girl (In The Pines)
The American grunge music scene originating in Seattle, Washington, forever gained a unique influence when grunge-rock royalty Nirvana covered Lead Belly’s tune ‘Black Girl (In The Pines).’ For their rendition, they changed the title to ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night,’ part of the hook repeated through the choruses, and their version was so hauntingly special, so pained and peaceful at the same time, that over the years many listeners still think it’s a Kurt Cobain original. However, some avid fans quick to research pulled up Lead Belly’s name, and soon realized just how much bluesy-folk influence the artist had over the band. Not only was Lead Belly Cobain’s “favorite performer,” in interviews he called him a musical “genius.” This classic “murder ballad,” as they’re so often called in the alt.-country music scene, has been stitched into the fabric of both American and U.K. music evolutions since its debut in 1944. It is one of the most culturally significant songs ever written, and was an easy choice for our top spot.