The Best Lead Belly Covers
In the ’90s when Nirvana sang “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” during their appearance on MTV Unplugged. It was eerie, it was beautiful, and the 19-year-old me thought “Kurt Cobain is a genius.” It wasn’t until a year later when the compact disc came out and I read the liner notes that I found out the song was written by some guy by the name of Huddie Ledbetter.
We didn’t have Google in 1994. Shit, we barely had internet. I scoured music magazines and watched MTV, but I couldn’t find Huddie Ledbetter anywhere. I ended up going back to Herkimer for winter break and popping into my favorite record store (the only one in town), The Last Unicorn, and asked them who Huddie Ledbetter was… the owner, Marc Smith, looked at me proudly, like I finally “got it.”
Marc knew me, he saw my sorry ass every Tuesday to look through the newest releases before he even had a chance to put them on the shelves. Every penny I saved up from mowing lawns, shoveling driveways or flipping burgers went toward music, rock music. Marc knew me and he knew Huddie Ledbetter… or as he referred to him, Lead Belly.
Lead Belly, born on January 20, 1888, was credited by Dylan for getting him into folk. Ron Wood said the whole British Invasion thing would never have happened if it weren’t for Lead Belly. Even George Ezra developed his singing style from him.
So many people have covered Lead Belly over the years that it’s hard to pick the best ones… but I’m going to try. Here goes nothing.
“The Midnight Special” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Black Betty” – Ram Jam
“Out on the Western Plain” – Rory Gallagher
“Ballad of the Boll Weevil” – The White Stripes
This was the last song of the last concert that the White Stripes ever performed together.
“Cotton Fields” – The Beach Boys
“Good Night, Irene” – Tom Waits
“Gallis Pole (Gallows Pole)” – Led Zeppelin
“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – Nirvana
I realized that Kurt mentioned his name when he introduced the song, but we didn’t have DVR back then either. So finding things out took a lot longer. And, in case you were born after 2000, we couldn’t just ask our phone “who sings this song?” sometimes it took months to find a song we liked on the radio and sometimes we never were able to find it. How sad?
The Non-Lead Belly, Lead Belly Covers
Here are a few more traditional blues songs that Lead Belly didn’t write, but his version influenced others to cover it.
“See See Rider (aka Easy Rider)” – Elvis Presley
Ma Rainey’s recording, “See See Rider Blues” (1925) was the first version of this song recorded. Big Bill Broonzy claimed that “when he was about 9 or 10—that is, around 1908, in the Delta (Jefferson County, Arkansas)—he learned to play the blues from an itinerant songster named “See See Rider”, “a former slave, who played a one-string fiddle … one of the first singers of what would later be called the blues.”
“The House of the Rising Sun” – The Animals
House of the Rising Sun is an American folk song, thought to be written by Georgia Turner and Bert Martin. Originally referred to as “Rising Sun Blues,” it was first recorded in 1933 by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster”. Woody Guthrie recorded a version in 1941, while Lead Belly recorded two versions, one in 1944 called “In New Orleans” and the other in 1948 named “House of the Rising Sun.”
“Rock Island Line” – Johnny Cash
Lead Belly and John and Alan Lomax supposedly first heard it from a work gang at Cummins State Farm prison in Lincoln County, Arkansas, during their travels in 1934-35. It was sung a cappella by a group of singers led by Kelly Pace.