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After I came to the early blues masters through the music of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, the White Stripes and a few others, it really opened the floodgates for me and suddenly people like Blind Willie Mctell, Son House and Robert Johnson were having as big an influence on me as John Lennon and Jimmy Page. One of the artists I started listening to during that time was the one and only Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly.
Leadbelly sort of blurs the line between folk and early blues in my mind. His music is not as deep within the tradition of the blues as artists like Robert Johnson, instead far more Americana and folk based. There are still definite blues moments though, like the well known "My Girl", one of my favorites and probably well known as a cover played by Nirvana during their infamous MTV Unplugged appearance. The influence of Leadbelly can be heard in everyone from Woodie Guthrie, to the Beatles, to Led Zeppelin, to (of course) Nirvana, and crosses multiple genres.
I've been a fan of Leadbelly for a while, but I'll admit I haven't heard nearly as much of his music as I would like, nor do I know as much about him as I wish I did, so when I stumbled upon this video on Youtube I was definitely interested. I'm not sure the date, where it was recorded, whether it's overdubbed or why the footage changes angles so much, but it is Leadbelly playing "Take this Hammer".
What I like about Leadbelly is that his music is about as authentic, honest and direct as can be. That is also really what I like about folk and early blues as a whole. Out of all the artists that I've listened to from those genres though, there is definitely something special about Leadbelly that makes it easy to see why so many have been influenced by him and his music. His lyrics are just perfect, or perhaps its his vocal delivery... or both. His vocal style is not really a soulful bluesy sound... but he does get that on some songs and has that sort of passion for sure... No, I think it's more just a small note of note of sadness that makes his simple words and these pretty simple songs sound almost heart wrenching-ly beautiful. Certainly one of the most passionate musicians I've ever heard.
I think a lot of younger people are coming to the music of Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and some of these other great artists that have influences so many, the same way I did: through listening to the artists they influenced. That's not a bad thing as it is helping keep these artists from being lost to the passage of time and lets them influence a whole new generation. At the same time though, sometimes it ends up being more about who the influenced than their actual music.
If that's how you're coming to Leadbelly, great, but hopefully you'll end up being a fan of his as well because Leadbelly's music is far more than just one of the roots of classic rock... it's completely timeless and should be appreciated on it's own as well as for the influence it has had on so many musicians young and old.