Leadbelly, Famed for Singing The Blues, Remains a Neglected Poet

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Huddie William Ledbetter [http://misterhuddie.blogspot.com/] (1888-1949) is or ought to be the poet for our time, but when American poetry is talked about, he isn’t, and it’s a damned shame.

He isn’t exactly the father of the blues, not like Blind Lemon Jefferson, but he wrote some of the strangest and most beautiful lyrics in American literature.

Sure, Leadbelly is celebrated as a 12-string guitarist and lyricist, but he’s omitted from the canon of high literature. His name never appears with Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, for example. Our way of canonizing poets is precious and hifalutin.

As I listened to his Whoa Back Buck the other day – it was later given the tamer, whiter title of Old Cunningham – I thought of Shadow of Night by George Chapman, a somewhat neglected Elizabethan occult poet. Not because the poems – Whoa Back Buck (an ox driver’s song) is a poem – are similar in any way, but because Chapman, whose poem is one of the strangest in the English language, and Leadbelly are both neglected. And also because Whoa Back Buck is as strange in its way as Chapman’s poem.

Chapman is associated with a sensibility that was considered rarified in its own day, more so than Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, for example. Whoa Back Buck and many another Leadbelly lyric are associated with Delta blues and its argot. So while Leadbelly was a contemporary of Hart Crane, no one I know of has associated him with serious American poetry. The pity is that what may sound like high-toned literature to us now was the vernacular of its time, and what may sound low-class to us now will not be remembered that way. Language evolves under our noses.

To me, Leadbelly sounds exciting, authentic, distinct. I think Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would have loved his poems. I think they would have regarded them as the poems of a peer. I’m not sure about Edgar Allen Poe and am even less sure about Sidney Lanier or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There is perhaps another Crane connection here: Chapman in some ways foreshadowed Crane.

We need to re-examine the canon and let Leadbelly in. And not just Leadbelly, but Blind Lemon Jefferson and quite a few other blues lyricists and musicians.

I don’t know if it’s racism or plain old Aristotelian categorization that keeps that keeps Leadbelly’s driven, mad, wily lyrics out of the pantheon. Maybe it’s both, and snobbery to boot. I know Leadbelly himself probably could have been inspired to write something about it if the subject had been brought up.

Look at this:

Took my gal to the party-o, She sat on a steeple, She let a fart & broke my heart And ______ (?) all over the people. Tell my wife when you go to the hills, I’m here workin at the sorghum mill.

Or this:

Me and my gal walkin’ down the road, Her knees knock together playin’ “Sugar In The Gourd,” Sugar in the gourd and the gourd in the ground, If you want a little sugar got to roll the gourd around.

Or this:

My old man’s good old man Washed his face in a frying pan, Combed his hair with a wagon wheel, And died with a toothache in his heel.

Papa loved mama – mama loved men,(three times) Mama’s in the graveyard and papa’s in the pen.

And here’s a chorus, calling to mind William Blake:

Ta, whoa-ho, gee, back up! Whoa, buck an’ gee, by the lamb Who made the back band, oh, Cunningham. Whoa, buck an’ gee, by the lamb Who made the back band, oh, Cunningham. Oh, ham, and oh Cunningham, Who made the back band, oh, Cunningham.

Leadbelly wrote about Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, the Scottsboro Boys, Marilyn Monroe and Howard Hughes, racism and poverty. If you had listened to his songs in his lifetime you would have known more about what was really going on than if you had stayed glued to your Philco or the ubiquitous newspapers. He was no talking head. He was doing what poets should be doing, what poets are doing: saying something some of us want desperately to hear and others of us don’t want to hear at all.

Huddie Ledbetter usually played the twelve string, but he could play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, concertina, and accordion. In some of his recordings, such as in one of his versions of the folk ballad John Hardy, he performs on the accordion instead of the guitar. In other recordings he just sings while clapping his hands or stomping his foot.

He didn’t write about Grandpa’s spectacles or suburban anomie. Hell, he couldn’t afford anomie.

The blues were born out of misery in the 1920s. The bankers then as now held sway, and they were bringing everybody to ruin. Segregation was more blatant back then. We’ve since found more ways to paper it over.

I think of Whoa Back Buck’s syncopated refrain, Whoa goddam, whenever I think of the clubby conspiracy against the growing American underclass. Yes, Whoa goddam! It should be our motto, our battle cry. Whoa goddam, you crooks, you liars, you hate-mongers, whoa goddam!

Now, out of the Delta and back to England. Consider this:

Rich taper’d sanctuary of the blest,

Palace of Ruth, made all of tears, and rest,

To thy black shades and desolat{.i}on

I consecrate my life; and living moan,

Where furies shall for ever fighting be,

And adders hiss the world for hating me;

Foxes shall bark, and night ravens belch in groans,

And owls shall hollo my confus{.i}ons

There will I furnish up my funeral bed,

Strew’d with the bones and relics of the dead.

That’s Chapman in Shadow of Night. I know of nothing stranger in the canon, except perhaps in Hart Crane’s monumental White Buildings and The Bridge, which expressed the uniquely American yearning for transcendence, for giant leaps towards the divine.

Where furies shall for ever fighting be – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else the crazies can spin us up and set us on the road to insolvency and ruin. We are hard put to rescue the Haitians or the citizens of New Orleans, our own citizens, but we can fatten contractors in the Middle East and Central Asia. This is the mix of madness and venality that Leadbelly and Chapman, too, address.

It will seem to some, I’m sure, a bizarre stretch to speak of Chapman and Leadbelly together, but English has a fabled track record for adapting itself to the times. In Chapman’s time the taste-making establishment was small and removed, and we don’t know how many poets in their many dialects have been lost to us. But today, given a much broader array of media, we can better preserve the words and voices of our poets.

There will always be establishments manning the gates, trying to dictate taste, keeping some in and others out. That is quiddity of clubs. That is why hate radio is popular, because it claims some views are right, some wrong, some of us belong and some of us don’t. Leadbelly knew all about this, and you can get a better idea of what he knew and how things were from his songs than you can from the histories. The histories focus on men of consequence. So did Leadbelly, but he and the historians had a big disagreement about who was of consequence. I’ll bet on Leadbelly any day, as would, I’m sure, the historian Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the United States [ wikipedia ] (1980).

Lacking an overarching vision, like Alexander the Great’s, society may readily fall back on category for reassurance, putting things in pigeonholes instead of melding them to make something that transcends its parts. It’s rather like spending the culture’s precious time in the broad spectrum of history by stuffing letters in boxes. It’s a kind of obsessiveness rooted in fear of the unknown, fear of what would happen if we approached matters alchemically. This is why a poet like Leadbelly ends up not being mentioned in the same breath as Dickinson or Crane. He has his category, and that’s that. But who said that’s that? The cultural establishment of his time-and their judgment has never been challenged. Similarly, Chapman was filed in the minor-poet pigeonhole because his work was found difficult or odd. When I was in college it was voguish to pronounce Hart Crane a failed poet, a hopeless obscurantist. Today, revisiting that view, we find it incurious.

We have strange notions, stranger than anything Chapman or Leadbelly wrote. We are a people of appearances. We make generals of people we think look like generals. We send people to Washington who perhaps look like our founders but do not in any way represent our demographics. We celebrate bass-mouth hate-mongers and palpable dummies. We think we’re a society of winners and losers and that everything would be just fine if the government left us alone and we didn’t have to pay taxes. All these views are a great deal stranger than our two poets’ lines.