Until his suicide in 1994, I can’t say I’d heard of Kurt Cobain. I knew there was a musical movement afoot in the Pacific Northwest called “grunge“, represented by groups with names like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains, but I’d missed the ascendance of Nivana, and certainly didn’t know Cobain was their frontman.
After his suicide, it was impossible to avoid Kurt Cobain. Even the un-grungiest were forced to learn about Courtney Love, her marriage to Cobain, the birth of their daughter and legal struggles over her custody, not to mention Cobain’s unrelenting drug addiction, rampant unhappiness and, according to some fans, impending musical sainthood.
I learned all this casually, as though hearing weather reports from New Delhi. The information surely was important to much of the population, but it seemed irrelevant to my life. Even at the height of the hysteria over the rocker’s death, I still hadn’t heard his music, apart from the obligatory clip on the evening news. Of course I was prejudiced. I was 48 years old and deep into the fourth year of building my own business, with no adolescents to parent. I simply wasn’t interested enough to pursue the work of someone responsible for a song with incomprehensible lyrics called “Smells Like Teen Spirit“, a young man who’d been formally introduced to the woman who would be his wife at a Butthole Surfers concert.
Despite public memorials held on the tenth and fifteenth anniversaries of his death, Kurt Cobain faded from my consciousness, until recent research into the life of Blues legend Robert Johnson brought him back to mind. Johnson was the first member of The 27s Club, a group of musicians noted for sharing one unfortunate experience: all died at the age of 27. The list of musicians, including such notables as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ronald McKernan of The Grateful Dead and Gary Thain of Uriah Heep, also includes Kurt Cobain.
In their book The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll, Erik Segalstad and Josh Hunter not only provide a terrific history of rock, they explore the inter-relationships and influences that link many of the “27s” together. The influence of Bluesmen like Robert Johnson was criticial for musicians like Cobain, not only musically but personally. According to Courtney Love (who may or may not be a trustworthy witness, depending on your point of view), Cobain once said he wanted to die as Robert Johnson did; according to his sister, quoted in the biography Heavier Than Heaven, he sometimes expressed a desire to “join” the 27 Club.
Whether that desire influenced the timing of his suicide is impossible to say. What is certain is that Cobain had been spiraling downward for some time, his drug addictions obvious and his suicidal tendencies suspected by those close to him. When his body was discovered at his Lake Washington home on April 8, 1994, a nearby suicide note said, “I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing…for too many years now”.
The truth is I wouldn’t have known any of this about Kurt Cobain had it not been for another roots musician, Huddie Ledbetter. I first discovered Ledbetter - commonly known as Lead Belly - in college. A friend with too many guitars passed his 12 string on to me along with a little advice: if I wanted to learn to play, I needed to listen to Lead Belly, the King of the Twelve-String Guitar. Listen I did. Ironically, I learned to play my first song, In the Pines exactly as generations of garage band rockers have learned ~ by imitation. I listened to a Lead Belly recording time and time again while I tried to “get it right”. Eventually I did get it right, and in the process learned to appreciate not only the music but also the life of an impulsive, reckless and notoriously violent individual. Singing his way through and possibly out of prison, taken under the wing of musicologist John Lomax, working with Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy, he became a staple on the folk circuit until his death in New York in 1949.
I was astonished when I discovered Lead Belly also was a favorite of Kurt Cobain. The song I learned as In The Pines was sung by Cobain during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance on December 14, 1993. Nirvana’s title for the song was Where Did You Sleep Last Night? and Wikipedia wrongly lists it as a composition of Lead Belly’s. The song actually dates from c.1870-1880. It may have its origins in the Appalachians and is extant in a variety of forms. Researching the song for a 1970 dissertation, Judith McCulloh found 160 different versions. Sometimes it’s known as In the Pines, and sometimes as Black Girl. Some versions include references to railroading while others don’t. Only the cold, moaning wind seems constant.
The lyrics are variously poignant, bitter, reflective or accusatory, but Cobain’s MTV performance of the song is essentially distressing, particularly when seen against the horizon of his death. New York Times music critic Eric Weisbard, writing about Cobain and the song in 1994, made clear his belief that Cobain’s was the definitive version. As he said, “There is really no need for anyone to ever sing it again.” Fortunately for lovers of music and history, a critic can’t so easily wrest a much-beloved song from the people to whom it belongs, only to deliver it into the hands of his favorite interpreter. In the Pines will be sung, again and again, by people oblivious to the opinions of critics but firmly embedded in musical traditions that probably will outlive the Times.
There’s no denying that Kurt Cobain’s is a sad, unsatisfying story. Unhappy in life, he seems ungrounded in death, his accomplishments, convictions and musical legacy scattering to the wind like his ashes. Despite his own difficulties and an unfortunate tendency to land himself in prison for attempted or actual homicide, the end of Lead Belly’s story is rather different. Stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Huddie Ledbetter died in New York City in 1949. He was buried near the place of his birth, in Mooringsport, Louisiana, in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery.
When I discovered the location of Lead Belly’s grave, there was no question I’d stop for a visit while on my way to the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Cautioned by others to take explicit directions and plenty of printed maps, I still spent an hour or so wending my way through unmarked back roads until a utility worker who claimed never to have heard of Blanchard-Latex Road – or Lead Belly - noticed we were nearly on top of some railroad tracks shown on one of my maps. “Head up there,” he said. “Take a right, and go on down that road a piece. If’n you don’t find the church, you’ll still be back where you started and you can start over again.”
Starting over for about the fifth time that afternoon, I discovered I was on the right road. Built of the same brick as the tidy little church it announced, the sign was easily visible from the highway, and the expansive parking lot suggested either an active congregation or a steady influx of pilgrims to Lead Belly’s grave. Parking behind the church, I reached down to scratch the ears of the welcoming committee, a scroungy yellow and white cat pushing against my ankles, and then walked through the neat, wrought-iron fence into Huddie Ledbetter’s world.
Moving along the path toward his grave, itself fenced off and obvious toward the middle of the cemetery, I was surrounded by Ledbetters: Edmon, Annie, Alice and John. I didn’t see the graves of Wesley and Sallie, his parents, but they surely were there. The church itself, established in 1872, bears E.A. Ledbetter’s name, inscribed into the cornerstone. Like so many who set out for adventure in life, Huddie Ledbetter learned Eliot’s truth: that home is where we start from, only to find as we journey on that “the world becomes stranger and the pattern more complicated”. In the end, he was one of the lucky ones. He was able to return home, to lie surrounded by his family in restful simplicity.
His own grave, marked by a matching wrought-iron fence and a stone noting his accomplishments, is well-tended, dignified and discrete. A second stone embedded into the ground proclaims him King of the 12 String Guitar, and the engraved guitar which decorates it is scattered with triangular guitar picks, thrown over the fence by visitors as tokens of affection and respect. I had no pick, but I had a voice. In the warm, comfortable silence, a squirrel stopped at the sound of it, and the little lamb melting away in front of his stone seemed to listen.
Like so many graveyards, this one was peaceful, comfortable and reassuring. Walking among the stones I collected a few sweet gum balls, stumbled into a fire ant mound and took a few more photos, until the lengthening shadows reminded me of the passage of time. Reluctant to leave, I had a last look at Huddie Ledbetter’s grave and gave a final pat to the sociable cat who still was curling around my ankles before turning toward the car.
Halfway there, I turned again to look back down the narrow asphalt road leading to the grave of a man whose life had been filled with turmoil and success. As a performer, Lead Belly sang of cold, lonesome pines, the darkness of anguished isolation and the shiver of fear felt by those forced by circumstance to flee familiar lives. But here, where the late afternoon sun warms his grave and the ageless, insistent wind shushes the clamor of life, Huddie Ledbetter is a man at rest ~ asleep in the sheltering pines.