Lead Belly: When Them Cotton Balls Get Rotten

July 28, 2009  
Filed under Music

I just picked up “Lead Belly-Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” on Smithsonian/Folkways, which has thirty-four LB classics on it. These songs were recorded with Moses Asch, a radio engineer in New York City, who was starting a small record company. Asch wanted to cast Lead Belly in a more positive light. “To me, Lead Belly was the most formal human being that ever existed. His clothing was always the best pressed, the best. His shoes were $60 shoes in 1947!” Jeff Place, an archivist at the Smithsonian Institution, has some nice notes at the end of the booklet about the recording methods employed by Moses Asch. These sessions were recorded directly onto acetate or shellac discs, since metal was reserved for the military *(sessions were during WWII-info from CD booklet).lead-belly

There are many intriguing stories surrounding the life of Lead Belly (correct spelling).  A few of these are: his life on the infamous Fannin Street in Shreveport *(notorious St. Paul`s Bottoms), his time in prison (such as how he got his name), the discovery of his music by John Lomax, and his pardon from jail, because the Louisiana Governor, O.K. Allen heard his signature song “Irene.” That`s just a thimble full, there are millions more! What I find interesting, is that a group of leftist musicians, loosely associated with a newly emerging folk scene, wholeheartedly embraced Lead Belly; these included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Just one year after Lead Belly`s death (1950), The Weavers (with Pete Seeger) had a number one hit with “Goodnight Irene.” And did you know that Lead Belly wrote “Cotton Fields”? “When them cotton balls get rotten, you can`t pick ya very much cotton…”


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