Merle Haggard. Glenn Frey, of The Eagles. Paul Kantner, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane. Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Maurice White. I knew them all through their music, and now all are gone. Only David Bowie, another musician already lost in 2016, bore no association for me. I knew his Ziggy Stardust persona, and knew the term “glam-rock,” but on the day of his death, I couldn’t have named one of his songs.
Oblivious though I may have been to Bowie’s career, his death reminded me of my similar response to Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide. At the time of Cobain’s death, I knew a musical movement called Grunge was emerging in the Pacific Northwest, represented by groups 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, 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 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. Even at the height of the hysteria over the rocker’s death, I still hadn’t heard his music, apart from the obligatory clips on the evening news. With other things to occupy my attention, and no teenagers to parent, I simply wasn’t interested in pursuing the work of a young man whose songs carried titles like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, or who’d been introduced to the woman he’d eventually marry at a Butthole Surfers concert.
Despite public memorials held on the tenth and fifteenth anniversaries of his death, I gave Cobain little more thought until 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: dying at the age of 27. The list of musicians includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ronald McKernan of The Grateful Dead, and Uriah Heep’s Gary Thain, as well as 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 among many of the “27s,” and the influences that link them together.
Bluesman Robert Johnson was a criticial influence 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 know. What is certain is that Cobain had been spiraling downward for some time: his drug addictions obvious, and his suicidal tendencies suspected by those closest to him. When his body was discovered in 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.”
I wouldn’t have known any of these things about Kurt Cobain had it not been for another roots musician: Huddie Ledbetter.
I discovered Ledbetter — better known as Lead Belly — in college. A friend with too many guitars passed on a 12-string to me, along with a little advice: if I wanted to learn the 12-string, I needed to listen to Lead Belly.
Listen I did, learning to play “In the Pines” exactly as generations of rockers have learned: by imitation. In the process, I came 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 revered staple on the folk music circuit until his death in New York, in 1949.
Discovering that Cobain also admired Huddie Ledbetter was a bit of a surprise. The song I knew as “In The Pines” was sung by Cobain during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance on December 14, 1993. Nirvana titled the song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” — a change entirely acceptable, given that the traditional song dates from c.1870-1880, 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; others don’t. Only the cold, moaning wind is constant.
Depending on the version, the song’s lyrics may be poignant, bitter, reflective or accusatory, but Cobain’s MTV performance of the song seemed anguished: 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, saying: “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 beloved song from the people to whom it belongs, only to deliver it into the hands of his favorite interpreter. “In the Pines” continues to be sung 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 story is both sad and unsatisfying. Unhappy in life, he seems ungrounded in death: his accomplishments, convictions, and musical legacy scattering like ashes to the wind.
Despite his own difficulties, including 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, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Huddie Ledbetter died in New York City in 1949. He was buried near the place of his birth, Mooringsport, Louisiana, in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery.
On my way to the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi one year, I decided to visit Mooringsport. Cautioned to carry explicit directions, I still spent an hour or so wending my way through unmarked back roads until I stopped to consult a utility worker who turned out not to be local.
Although he hadn’t heard of Blanchard-Latex Road — or Lead Belly, for that matter — he noticed we were nearly on top of some railroad tracks shown on my map. “Head up that way,” he said. “Take a right, then go on down the road a piece. If you don’t find the church, you’ll still be close to where you started, and you can start over again.”
Amused by similarities between learning to play a Lead Belly song and finding Lead Belly’s grave, I started over, and soon found the sign for Shiloh Baptist: built of the same brick as the tidy little church it announced, and easily visible from the highway. The expansive parking lot suggested an active congregation; a steady influx of pilgrims to Lead Belly’s grave; or both.
Parking behind the church, I reached down to scratch the ears of the welcoming committee: a scroungy, yellow and white cat who pushed against my ankles. Then, I walked through the neat, wrought-iron fence into Huddie Ledbetter’s world.
Moving along the path toward his grave, I was surrounded by Ledbetters: Edmon, Annie, Alice and John. I didn’t see the graves of Wesley and Sallie, his parents, but surely they 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, but that, as we journey on we find “the world become stranger, and the pattern more complicated.” In the end, he was one of the lucky ones. He was able to return home, and to lie surrounded by family and friends in restful simplicity.
His own grave, marked by a 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. Decorated with an engraved guitar, it holds a scattering of 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.
Peaceful, comfortable, and reassuring as so many graveyards are, it was a pleasant place to linger, until lengthening shadows reminded me of time’s passage. With a last look at the grave and a final ear-rub for the sociable cat, I turned to leave.
Halfway to the car, I turned again, looking down the narrow asphalt road to the grave of a man whose life had been filled with turmoil, struggle, and success. As a performer, Lead Belly sang of cold, lonesome pines: of the darkness of anguished isolation, and the shiver of fear felt by those forced by circumstance to flee familiar lives.
But now, 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.