Huddie Ledbetter’s Pines

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.

 

 

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Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 12:38 pm  Comments (20)  
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  1. Thank you…this was an excellent piece.

    burstmode,

    Thanks so much. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I must say, I got a good education myself while writing this one.

    And by the way – love the pics of the young swimmers!

    Linda

  2. Hey Shores – even tho I haven’t sent any comment recently, please know that I’ve been keepin up with ya. Your essay on ‘Perspiration’ really speaks ‘from the heart’ about the many who go unrecognized n’ unappreciated. But, then, true to your goal, all your work ‘speaks.’

    This piece on Lead Belly, and all of the ‘Delta’ essays, the music links and photos are a delight -thanks again.

    Mike

    Hi, Mike,

    I’ve had such a wonderful time with the music posts – one of the best reasons for writing is that it provides a perfect excuse for learning new things!

    As for the unrecognized and unappreciated, they’re all around. But, a “voice for the voiceless” can be a reality, and a way to tell their stories until they’re willing or able to speak themselves – which is the goal, after all.

    It’s always great to have you stop by – wave to the Mitchell family for me ;-)

    Linda

  3. What a wonderful weaving of lives and music and influences that I would never have otherwise known. This is the way to learn history, having it pulled together like this. It is the way to remember things, too.

    Cobain would like this. Yeah, I’m guessing the man had some moments of happiness in his life – I do hope so.

    Oh, and nice pictures of the pines!!!!

    oh,

    Aren’t the connections wonderful? It’s like six degrees of creative separation. If we keep snooping and exploring, it won’t be long until we discover the amazing relationships that lie just below the surface, or the curiosities we never would have expected. In that sense, it’s very much like traveling – if we get off the freeway and hit what William Least Heat-Moon called the “blue highways”, it won’t be long before we’re pulling into the front yard of someone who turns out to be the best friend of our cousin’s favorite painter’s model. Or whatever ;-)

    So many roads, so little time! I’m really glad you enjoyed traveling this one – and that you liked the pines. Me, too.

    Linda

  4. Linda – once again, what a wonderful read. While I had heard of Kurt Cobain, I’d never heard of Lead Belly! I find it fascinating that you had all this information before you went on your trip – obviously with intentions to search things out. That must have been so much fun!

    My grandfather was a composer in his day – wrote many a piece of music for the Hollywood movies way back when. Occasionally I pull up his credits list and I am astounded. Some he received credit for – some not (he helped write the song for the Burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind, but never received credit on the screen – you can only find it in one book that we know of).

    But probably like most good musicians, he did it for his love of music. My mom told me he was a musical genius – picking up the piano at age 4. He passed some musical ability down to his grandkids. All my brothers play something, and I’ll dibble/dabble on the piano, but could never come close to his musical talent.

    His one big claim to fame is winning an Oscar in 1942 for scoring the music to Yankee Doodle Dandy. He was quite a character … well loved, he loved life, traveling, cigars and Jack Daniels!

    Thanks for the good memories that this piece of yours quite obviously brought to me in a round about way!

    Karen,

    I’ve just had the most fun. I pulled up the original trailer for Yankee Doodle Dandy and spent five minutes realizing how much good music I’ve forgotten! Not only that, I finally solved a long-time mystery from my childhood. We had a camp song that was a favorite – “L, O, double L, Y, P, O, P spells Lollypop, Lollypop”. It’s a take-off on “Harrigan”, also a Yankee Doodle Dandy song. If I ever knew that, I don’t remember it, but there it was in the trailer. It was the same with “Give My Regards to Broadway”. I used to love singing that song in our Chorus.

    And to think I know someone with an Oscar-winning connection to the film! It’s that six degrees of creative separation again – we just never know how we’re connected to the most unexpected things. I was thinking how proud your family must have been of your grandfather, but then I thought of something more important – how much richness and enjoyment his talents must have brought to your family. Kit, over at Words, Music… had a wonderful post recently about her grandfather teaching her guitar. It was a different world, and a different music, but the dynamics are clearly the same. I remember you talking in another context about the family gathering around the piano – what a joy that must have been.

    I do love pre-travel research. I’m not interested in tight itineraries, but I like to have a sense of what might be “out there”, and sometimes I turn up surprising possibilities. Before I decided to go to Clarksdale, I had no idea Lead Belly was buried outside Shreveport. Once I did know – well. What’s a girl to do?

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece, and were willing to share your wonderful memories.

    Linda

  5. Hi — I love this post. We’ve gone down the same road. Lead Belly has always been one of my heros. I’ve listened to his music up and down– do you know the bio of him by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell? There’s a great 3 volume collection from the Smithsonian American Folkways recordings.

    I appreciated your story about visiting the grave and how hard it is to find. I dragged my brother (who lives in Nacogdoches, TX) up to Mooringsport to find the gravesite last Christmas, and it was a wonderful thing to do. I took my photos of his grave, too, and paid my respects. Thanks!

    John,

    I haven’t read the biography, but I’ve a reissue of Volume I of the Smithsonian recordings to replace the vinyl that went – well, who knows where? I love the way the notes on the Smithsonian Folkways website pulls together music and writing: “Between 1941 and 1947 Lead Belly recorded some of his best music in Moses Asch’s tiny New York studio. Asch envisioned himself as a documenter and didn’t like to interfere with the music. He thought of himself as “the pen with which these artists write.” That’s wonderful.

    I thought while writing this how grateful I was to have a “place” to go in order to pay my respects. While I’m not opposed to cremation and probably will choose that for myself, there still is something about a gravesite that invites a different sort of reflection. It was a nice experience, and I’m glad you were able to make your own trip to honor him.

    Thank you so much for stopping by, and for the lovely comment. You might offer your brother a word of thanks, too. I evacuated to Nacogdoches for Hurricane Rita, and as much as you can in those circumstances had a great experience. It’s a good town, with good people – although I did go on up to Tyler for Ike. A little more distance seemed a good thing!

    Linda

  6. Linda –

    Thanks for the shout out. Who knew we all had similar musical histories?

    Oh, and I have stopped referring to your entries as posts. Each one is a little story all its own and when I read them I get carried along on the adventures with you.

    Thanks again for sharing all these beautiful pieces of your trip with us.

    Kit,

    About two weeks ago, I sent off an email to a friend asking if she agreed with my feeling that I was edging into story-telling. She did, as a matter of fact, but your unsolicited affirmation that there’s some story-telling going on is just wonderful. From the very beginning I’ve been convinced there are varieties of blogging, and that there’s a difference, for example, between blogging and using a blog platform for writing. It’s beginning to look like year two will be devoted to exploring that difference a bit more ;-)

    And I still have the pleasure of writing about the festival itself waiting for me!

    Linda

  7. I always learn something here! Leadbelly I knew, Cobain I knew (never understood the appeal, but still…) but their intersection is a revelation.

    Did you know there’s a website devoted to graves? Actually, I think there are two of them, but this is the one I remember. Leadbelly’s there:

    http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6121635

    Ella,

    You’ve returned the favor! I didn’t know about the “grave-finder”, but I have a whole list of names to go searching for now, before I make my next (!) trip over to the Delta.

    I was thinking this morning about your comments on point of view a few months back, when I was describing the four people sitting on their deck talking about a day at the beach. I think it’s time to go back and re-read what you had to say, and start pushing the limits a little.

    Thanks for being such a great reader.

    Linda

  8. Thank you for taking me along on your musical education – here and previously about Robert Johnson. I especially like learning about these Blues fellas because my son is influenced by them, and I can now talk with a little knowledge with him.

    Cobain’s singing of In the Pines was heart- and gutwrenching, and very beautiful. I’ve never really paid much attention to him either, and I wonder if I could handle the angst very long – watching and knowing what his short life was like, and the despair he ended with.

    Your journey was well told, the meanderings well laid out and easy to follow. Great job.

    Ruth,

    Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm have a song on their Two Man Wrecking Crew album that includes the line, “I don’t just sing about the blues, but I live it, too.” It’s that kind of consonance I strive for in my writing, and I suspect it’s at the heart of what makes Blues so appealing to me. The word “authenticity” has been overused, but it’s the right word, here. When life experience and music are matched as perfectly as they are in that Cobain performance, it can be almost unbearable.

    I’m glad you found the story easy to follow. I’m learning – for every sentence that shows up, there are paragraphs littering the cyberspace floor, and for every hour spent writing, there are more hours spent in research. It’s such fun!

    Linda

  9. Linda,
    Thank you for the “musical” history lesson and for painting a picture of where you were unceremoniously attacked by the six-legged little blighters!

    Most of this is new to me but I do remember watching the film Yankee Doodle Dandy, and then annoying the family by singing the song over and over again!

    I have just done a search for the definition of the “S” word and came across this very apt quote…

    “I really haven’t had that exciting of a life. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life. So I pretty much like to make it up. I’d rather tell a story about somebody else.” ~ Kurt Cobain

    Sandi :)

    Sandi,

    Oh, dear. Now the plot thickens even more – I’m actually going to have to add Kurt Cobain to the famous “snippets envelope”, along with Gardengirl’s description of the computer as an “infernal persnickety timesucker” and Soren Kirkegaard’s insistence on willing one thing! The difference, of course, is that I’ve never, ever complained about having a boring life, but the impulse toward story-telling doesn’t depend on the events of real life. I may not understand “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but I understand that quotation.

    I can only imagine your family’s annoyance – you, a good British girl, celebrating the Yanks in song! That’s all right – it was an era of singable songs, and it just plain felt good to sing them. I was the same way with “The Music Man” – would you like to hear “76 Trombones”? No, I didn’t think so….

    The “S” word…. I like that ;-)

    Linda

  10. Block out some time for that website. One search leads to another and another…

    Do push!

    Ella,

    I just went over and spent way more time than I’d planned at Find-a-Grave. It’s a wonderful site! I’m going back this weekend with some family names and see what I can turn up.

    Just now, I believe I’ll go browse ebay to see if someone selling some time and energy!

    Linda

  11. A very interesting and well written text, as always. Thank you. Your language is so beautiful.

    It is fascinating how people and events link together across time.

    That aside, I think it is scary how suicides affects us left behind. A person that killed himself was more interesting to write an essay about in school, than one who died of old age. Misery interests us in an almost morbid way. I guess it strikes a chord in us that is very primal.

    Desiree,

    I don’t know how it is in your country, but here, if there is a traffic accident along the freeways, everyone has to slow down and take a good look. We even talk about really bad situations as “train wrecks”. People go to hockey games waiting for fights to break out on the ice, and watch auto races waiting for someone to crash into the wall. It’s so common, and so strange, but all of it certainly supports your suggestion that we’re interested in every kind of misery.

    The one difference I’ve noticed between “ordinary miseries” and suicide is that we seem to want to watch murder and mayhem, but tend to turn away from suicide, as though we’re embarassed. I really don’t understand it – but there it is.

    Speaking of linking across time and space – it’s time to resort and repack for hurricane season, and when I do some of that I’m going to send you a photograph of the ceramic bread or cheese board from my grandfather’s town in Sweden – I’d love to know what it says! I think it’s probably a “give away” from a business with a town name and such – there-s not much on it – but it would be fun to know for sure.

    Thanks for stopping by – it’s always a pleasure. I’m getting back into my own blog routine a bit now that I’ve met some work deadlines – isn’t it about time for you to be hearing from your contest? I’ll come by and look ;-)

    Linda

  12. Linda!

    Wow – awesome…. I only had heard of Lead Belly due to my friends in the music industry and my love of guitar music. You have done another fabulous job of teaching us something new while stirring the curiosity. I now want to know more…

    BTW, did you know I am on a mission? Looking to buy my first guitar… I have a couple of Jeremiah’s here, but I want one of my own. Nope, don’t know how to play, but I’m going to learn like many of the old masters, imitation along with a little help from my friends.

    Love this story and would love to email it to my buddy in Nashville. May I?

    XXXXOOO

    Donna

    Hi, Donna,

    What fun – the only thing I can’t wrap my mind around is how you’re going to play guitar on a YOLO board… That’s all right. If anyone can figure it out, you can! And of course you can share the story with your Nashville friend – just send him the link. He might enjoy the other “blues blogs”, too.

    I’ll be anxious to hear about your new guitar – I’m so pleased you’re going to give it a try. It’s so much fun, even for those of us who are really pretty bad ;-) And when we get a chance to listen to the ones who are really good…. well… There’s nothing like it!

    Linda

  13. By the time I got to the end, I had an overwhelming desire to go wandering an old country churchyard.

    Hi, Bug,

    You bring the pimento cheese sandwiches and I’ll bring the lemonade, and we’ll have a picnic, too. I’ve done that, more than once, and had some nice chats with folks – both living and dead.

    I suppose it’s the same in the Carolinas as it is in Texas – there are so many tiny cemeteries tucked around churches, or family graveyards scattered here and there. It’s a wonderful way to explore history, and the peace and quiet always is a treat.

    So nice to see you “here” ;-)

    Linda

  14. Linda,

    Thank you for another piece of history that I would never know or find out for myself. I admit I’ve only heard of Kurt Cobain, or Nirvana for that matter, by name only, let alone Lead Belly. So it’s through your travels that I’ve come to appreciate more about the music that I’m totally ignorant about. ‘Six degree of separation’… in music, in art, in everything I suppose… we’re more connected than we care to know.

    Also, I’m convinced that another career that you would excel in would be investigative journalism. You’re one thorough research writer. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Arti,

    We all have our areas of ignorance – mine is films, as you so well know. But now, you have Lead Belly and Cobain, and I have Vermeer. The only thing better would be discovering a Vermeer hanging in the Lead Belly exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (At one point, there was an exhibit at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art called “Mixed Taste: The Human Genome and Leadbelly”. How’s that for unexpected connections?”)

    I do enjoy the research, although that’s a pretty big word for what’s really nothing more than collecting. I’m like a garage sale junkie wandering through life, pawing through things and saying, “Ooooh… Pretty! I think I’ll take that home.” Eventually, I get reminded of this or that and pull it out of the closet, prop it up on a shelf or table and hope you’ll like it, too.

    A curious generalist, that’s what I am….

    Linda

  15. It’s interesting isn’t it. . . the link between art and tragedy, creativity and misery, dying young and immortality.
    Somehow it’s more romantic, more ‘real’ when an artist suffers. Happiness and joy can make for a mundane biography. A good life, but a mundane biography.

    Jeannine,

    Now, there’s a question and a worthy challenge – would it be possible to write an engaging, stimulating – interesting – book about an ordinary, happy person? And another question – are miserable artists necessarily more creative than those who live easy, comfortable lives? What’s more likely to engender a wonderful book, a beautiful painting or a stimulating environment – too much drink and an unhappy affair, or cocoa, scrabble and a beautifully tiled fireplace?

    There are so many variables no final answer is possible, I suppose. But I’m not counting out the possibility that ordinary, happy and creative can co-exist!

    Linda

  16. Ain’t it the truth that there are new pathways in every sentence we write!

    Ruth,

    No less than Samuel Johnson knew that – I love his statement that “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”

    Journey on!

    Linda

  17. This was a truly excellent piece of writing – I really enjoyed it. I was an adolescent when Cobain died and I remember the day vividly – I found it very sad and I have to admit I was a huge fan of grunge. It’s so interesting how we all remember these events differently…

    Hi, Courtney,

    I think it’s ok to have been – or be! – a fan of grunge. :-) Every generation has its own music, whatever preferences individuals within that generation may have. I was just too late for grunge. On the other hand, I once decided not to go out with a fellow who was perfectly nice but insisted on listening to big band music all the time. Glenn Miller’s all right, but….

    What’s even more interesting to me is that events that are really important to some people aren’t even a blip on my radar. I once said to someone, “Fergie? What’s she doing singing?” I didn’t have a clue there was a non-Royal Fergie. Deep sigh.

    Thanks for stopping by and the kind words. I’m really glad you enjoyed it!

    Linda

  18. Linda,

    Like you, I didn’t know much about Kurt Cobain until his death, and I never heard about Lead Belly until today. I very much enjoy how you often give us so much information about a subject to which we may never have been exposed otherwise. I enjoyed this introduction very much.

    Bella

    Bella,

    This one’s been especially fun because there are people who knew Leadbelly but not Cobain, people who knew Cobain but not Leadbelly, and folks who knew both but didn’t know of the connection. I haven’t heard yet from someone who’d never heard of either one, but they’re probably out there.

    I really don’t know much about music of the 80s and 90s – I tend to recognize songs, and have some I really like, but I just didn’t keep up with the bands. Now that I’ve been dragged out from under my rock again and introduced to Pandora radio, I’ve got some catching up to do!

    Linda

  19. Wow — what a fascinating juxtaposition of the classic and the contemporary (though I guess Cobain was long-ago-enough that contemporary isn’t quite the right word.) As always, I learn something when I read your posts. As a blues fan, I have always been aware of Lead Belly and Robert Johnson’s contributions not only to music, but to the inspiration of so many (there’s a great exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on those inspirations!). But I didn’t know about Cobain’s connection.

    I’m glad you visited the grave, were able to walk in peace and pines with this great legend. I’m glad someone else likes to do that, too. This post belongs somewhere. It’s an article waiting to happen.

    jeanie,

    There’s something about “living with” a legend for decades that breeds comfort and familiarity. The screaming hordes running after the latest celebrity or the paparazzi desperately trying to make their reputations on the details of someone’s life have nothing to do with being able to walk up to a grave in solitude and sing someone’s song back to them without self-consciousness. Forty years ago would I – could I – have imagined such a thing? Of course not. But that’s part of why we live – to see what happens next.

    I giggled just a tiny bit at your comment about Cobain being a little dated now. What a world we live in when someone from 15 years ago isn’t “contemporary” any more!

    Thanks so much for stopping by – your schedule has to be getting a little crazy as your trip approaches!

    Linda

  20. Linda,

    It took a while after you commented on my monkey balls picture at Weather Underground, but eventually curiosity led me To Ground Zero. I did not recognize the name Huddie Ledbetter. (Now, if you had said “Leadbelly”… I might never have undertaken this journey.)

    Twice during my Air Force days I did a stint at Keesler AFB in Biloxi. Then for fifteen years I crisscrossed Mississippi while traveling between Texas and North Carolina. Generally I stuck to the interstate, but on a couple of occasions I rode the Natchez Trace Parkway. Despite so many opportunities, and while I consider myself a blues fan, it never occurred to me to make a pilgrimage to the home of the blues. I was always just passing through. Once I spent an interesting afternoon at Stennis Space Center, but I’m thinking that’s a completely different kind of romance. :o

    It wasn’t until you mentioned learning to play In the Pines that it got personal. My grandfather used to hum a version of this song when I was a boy. My sponge-like young mind must have been in record mode, because I still recall the refrain. More to the point, I can still get a frisson when I sing it. This old song evokes compelling imagery. It’s as if I’m standing in deep shade on soft pine straw when a chilly wind begins to seep down my neck…

    Of course Granddad’s version was Appalachian bluegrass, not delta blues. Bill Monroe’s rendition probably comes close; this performance I found on YouTube may be more accessible to a modern audience (including me):

    Bogon,

    Your comment about “just passing through” makes me smile. Isn’t it true that the opportunities closest to us often are the least appreciated? I’m sitting here now looking across Clear Lake to the Johnson Space Center. I’ve never taken the tour, in 20 years. Maybe I’d better get cracking, while the place is still open.

    The intertwining of blues and bluegrass has led to some wonderful music. I was lucky enough to hear Monroe and his group at Fitzgeralds’ in Houston, back in the day. They included In the Pines in one of their sets, along with Footprints in the Snow. They must have been feeling a little melancholy that night.

    I like the YouTube version, too. Tony Rice is one of my favorites. I always enjoyed his work with David Grisman. When I was living in Salt Lake City, everytime they’d show up in Telluride or Park City or somewhere, we’d make pilgrimage.

    Thanks for sharing your memories, and stirring my own!

    Linda


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