Here is one of my favorite stories about a classic blues artist.
This is from my classic blues radio show, “Boosie’s Playhouse” that airs/streams on KMRE 102.3, heard every Saturday night at 10p PST: Lead Belly, the famous classic American Blues artist was born in 1888 as Huddie Ledbetter. He reached the top of his blues career later in his life during the 1930’s – 1940’s.
Lead spent much of his early adulthood in a Texas prison for homicide. He got an early release after writing and singing a song for the State Governor. In 1925, he wrote a song asking Governor Pat Neff for a pardon. Neff, who had promised at his election never to pardon a prisoner, broke his promise and set Huddie Ledbetter free.
In 1930 Lead returned to prison, this time for assault with intent to kill. Reputation and talent follow you everywhere, even through prison walls. Good citizen or not his music was desired and according to a folk song collector for the Smithsonian, John A Lomax, needed to be documented.
In 1934 John and Lead Belly recorded for the Library of Congress the album now titled “Leadbelly’s Last Sessions” Excited for this opportunity Lead let loose! He had a wonderful memory for music and folk stories. He played and sang songs from the Tin Pan Alley, dance tunes, prison work songs, mule-skinner hollers, rag songs and the “Mean-Blues”. This jail bird did SING! Accompanied by his 12-string guitar he sang all of these in his signature roof-ratting high baritone voice.
His style of “Country Blues” or “Folk Blues” made him in a minor celebrity at the time. Lomax arrange (another) early release for Lead. Despite the segregation social pressures at the time these two, a white man from the northeast and a black man from the south, were determined to preserve musical history, together. Lomax and Lead traveled all across the southern states collecting and recoding rare and traditional music. Most of the folks they recorded were like Lead, too poor and unsure of how to get a recording contract. Folks who had memorized stories and songs from their friends and family and passed them down verbally. Songs and stories that were distinctly American but most Americans would never of heard one note if it wasn’t for this unusual “power team”: Lomax with the equipment & cash, and Lead with the knowledge & connections.
Lead Belly~ his temper landed him in jail twice, but his music, the music of his people, set him free -twice. His biggest recorded hit “Good Night Irene” raised a revival for Folk Blues and influenced many.
Remember the old days around a camp fire when each person took turns adding to the story? Well, what if two friends did the same thing but in the form of a poem? My island friend Peter and I did just that over the past five days.
The results? Read for yourself:
S: The wind combed through the branches and low lying bushes to grab up the dead and recently fallen, blowing them around in whirlwinds.
P: As the ripened thistle does as the Buck dashes through the field in flight
S: Your words, old friend, effect me this way, removing the dross from my character. Your whispers like fire, your love as rays of life, bring a renewing with every caress
P: That brings completion to the unfinished works, of an unfinished mind, while soothing the unfinished soul,
S: Oh you have finished me, the plate is empty
Bread brushes along in circles absorbing any morsal that remains
I sit in front of an empty plate
Thinking back to our time in September
P: The world is ignorant, but awakening. Patience.
S: The world is closed and knows it’s time is ending. Patience.
In my new neighborhood, just up the hill is an empty lot. I discovered it one weekend while taking my cat for a walk. We have foxes in the area and she won’t go far from the home unless someone walks with her. It’s a mutual benefit, she gets to explore and I get some exercise.
The main access road winds its way up a ridge just a few miles outside of town. All of the homes are built off that road with long individual driveways and dense woods keeping any passerby, weather on foot or in car, from seeing the house. It’s more like walking through a thick forest, than a neighborhood, with the only exception being the trail is a two lane gravel road. On this street people want to be hidden from the world, tucked away in their own little paradise, behind a curtain of evergreens. Unlike the suburban neighborhood I had just moved from, where every house is out in the open for all to see, but, I suppose that’s the idea.
About a quarter mile into my walk I pass by four large gates, evenly spaced apart, guarding driveways leading to a neighbor I’ll probably never see, unless they too are walking on the gravel road. The fifth driveway, however, was completely different. Standing out like a sore thumb is an entrance to this abandon lot. No gate or house numbers, no drift wood sign with a family’s last name to mark it, just some long grass and wildflowers.
Princess checking out the neighborhood
When I first discovered the lot, I was hesitant to trespass on it. Being new to the “neighborhood” I didn’t want to start trouble. From the gravel road I could see there was a clearing at the top of it, and thought for sure there had to be a view that was worth the risk. After a quick look for a No Trespassing sign or perhaps security cameras, or another human being, I decided the cat HAD to take a quick look and I couldn’t let her go alone.
This lot is friendly and open; it almost begs to have visitors! Why is there no house here? I learned from a neighbor the history of it: the owners will never build a house on it because like many areas on the island, it has no water. After three attempts digging for a well they gave up and are left with a very expensive piece of picnic ground. It’s unfortunate for them, but fortunate for suburbanites who walk their cats, namely ME.
There is something about this piece of land that holds my imagination. Perhaps it’s the same feeling that the owners received, who ever they are, when they first stood on it. The sunlight reacts to the trees in a dramatic way here. Even the grass and the little wild flowers carpeting the ground just seem to sing in the rays. The land has a natural driveway bending slightly to the left, nice and level branching off the main road. Walking down the driveway, towards the middle of the lot you notice a generous round lump of what I call “Island Rock” protruding from the earth like a gigantic beauty mark. This is the obvious location for the house. From the top of the mound of rock, turning towards the west, you get a wonderful view of the island, the straight and the Olympic Mountains. The land takes a downward slop forward like a ski jump leveling out into a flat grassy field. Madronas lace the outside edges with there signature orange bark.
I can see a beautiful modern home sitting on the rock, with large windows to frame the trees and mountains. Specters of people fill the empty space, living in the home I build here in my imagination. Family gathering together in the dinning room, a couple sitting out on the deck, kids running around exploring the little groves made perfect for gnomes.
The cat rubs up against my leg and sits next to me, bringing me back to our world, our world, standing alone on someone else’s land. With a heavy sign I take in the mountain range across the water. Now whenever I feel restless and need to stretch my legs, I travel up my road to the friendly lot that I’m sure awaits my visit.
My husband, Christopher, has a wonderful story from his youth about a time he would have given anything for an ice cold grape pop. I was thinking about his little adventure while working outside in the sun the other day, myself needing to quench my thirst. It brought a smile to my face and wanted to share:
One summer while visiting his Grandma’s house outside of Burney California, he decided to go for a short hike up a large hill anchored on the back end of her property line. Grandma Conrad’s land was nicely positioned up against Shasta National Forest. The pine filled forest is beautiful with an easy to climb terrain. His “short hike” ended up being a four hour episode in dangerous 100 degree weather! In addition, thinking he’d only be out for about an hour, he brought no water with him.When he tells the story he honestly wonders how he found his way back at all. He had suffered dehydration and got direction turned. A twelve year old hiking alone in the woods, with no water or map was a recipe for disaster. Lucky for him, Grandma had a beacon in her kitchen. Like a lighthouse safely guiding ships to harbor, her fridge was full of his favorite Crush grape pop. All he could think about was that chilled purple drink as he tromped through the pine needle and dust covered trails. The bottles called to him, guiding him home. He says he remembers just thinking about nothing but grape pop, to the point of saying the words out loud as he walked “Grape pop! Grape pop!” When he walked through Grandma’s door, he bypassed his worried family altogether, making a beeline for the fridge, downing two pops before answering any questions!
Of course there are many times in life when we get direction turned. Either due to poor planning or being in new territory, unknown elements stifling common sense. Keeping ourselves focused on the goal at hand can also be like a guide to our “grape pop”.
That day while riding back to the lodge for my next
assignment, I had no immediate crises on hand except thirst. “Grape pop!” I said to myself, verbally illustrating the level of my thirst. Saying it perhaps in a delirious state of mind due to the hot sun, or just out of respect for a courageous little boy who found his way by keeping his eyes on a dream.
Nothing is the best something. If you Google “Nothing” you’ll get something: deals for “nothing”, blogs about “nothing”. Google Image gets you photos about the word “nothing” and there is even a town in Arizona called “Nothing”. Perhaps it was founded by the Noth family?
Nothing is where all things come from really, including ideas and useful inventions, such as the telephone. In the 1870’s commerce and people spread across America’s new territories. Mass communication was needed but the current Morse code system was limited to sending only one message at a time. Alexander Graham Bell figured out that many messages could travel simultaneously along the same wire if the signals differed in pitch. Using the same network of wires already in place for the telegraph his “harmonic telegraph” incorporated a technique that benefits society to this day. Now you could argue that there was a rough system in place that Bell simply made improvements on, but that is not the case. The only common denominator is that both systems are wired based. The telegraph uses Morse code mono tones of dots and dashes; the human voice is more musical in nature and has a wider range of characteristics than code. Bell had to create something from nothing.
When you were a kid, did you ever sit in front of your old radio tuner trying to find a new station or a familiar song? In the 70’s the AM channels always had the weirdest stuff on them during the night. I would sit crossed legged in front of the massive radio, slowly rotating the large dial, making my way down the frequencies marked on the plate looking for something… anything. In between the stations was dead air, nothing but static. If the weather was right radio waves would bounce over from foreign countries and far away cities. Imagine my joy when I first discovered the Dr Demento Show! Out of the snowy static of nothingness, rising up from the dust of the indistinguishable comes Dr Demento!
*cue dramatic music*
Barret Eugene “Barry” Hansen, aka:Dr Demento hosted a radio program that was two hours of pure goofiness. His show aired from 1974-2011. For a kid this program was pure gold! Demento, a National Radio Hall Of Fame recipient, put together creative people, energy, and ideas on his radio program for 40 years. Congratulations Dr Demento!
Ideas are like that- a station hidden in the static, and all we need to do is sit, wait and get tuned in.