Playing Around the Note: Leadbelly and Me

Statue of Leadbelly in downtown Shreveport, LA

“Man, this sucks,” I remember thinking as the sounds of a tin can voice and guitar made their ways to my ears. Sitting on that stool in Blockbuster Music, I did not fully understand why the artist I was currently listening to had such a huge impact on the band that helped to define my musical palette. After hearing Kurt Cobain belt out “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV’s Unplugged, I told myself that I had to head out and see if I could find any music by this enigmatic Leadbelly, a name I had never heard of before even though I lived in a city where he honed his guitar skills.

Listening to Leadbelly’s distant voice in my ears, I wondered how someone like Cobain, my adolescent, rock god idol, could ever perceive something that sounded so terrible as a creative elixir for his anguished soul. My naivety lasted for a long time as I questioned Leadbelly’s musical, and cultural, importance. Growing older, I began to expand my musical tastes, delving in to music that I swore I would never enjoy. I came back to Leadbelly, periodically, and listened to songs like “C.C. Rider,” “Goodnight Irene,” and others. Something about his voice, his virtuoso guitar skills, specifically with the twelve string, fascinated me.

Leadbelly didn’t grab a hold of me until I started studying literature in greater detail. I came back to the twelve string guitar god the same way I discovered Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, through the works of Ernest J. Gaines. In various places, Gaines speaks about the importance of both classical (i.e. canonical, high brow artists) and popular artists like Leadbelly and Bessie Smith. Each serves a specific purpose. Gaines listened to Mussorgsky while writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, he found inspiration in Van Gogh, and he found it in Ernest Hemingway. However, these artists could not relate to him, or others, descriptions of African American life in the South, an existence Gaines experienced. He told Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton, when discussing the 1927 flood, “I think some of the best description, especially dealing with blacks, some of the best descriptions of the big flood of ’27, which most southern writers have written about, have been described better in music, especially by great blues singers like Bessie Smith, Josh White, Leadbelly, and many others” (209). Gaines goes on to say that while whites wrote about these events in newspapers, the musicians above sang them, providing pictures of “the more intimate things” that occurred through their use of repetition and understatement (209).

Rather than hitting the note directly, jazz and blues musicians play around it. Gaines talks about this with “The Sky is Gray,” and the understatement that he deploys in that story. Throughout Gaines’s work, he plays around the note, circling around the racism and segregation that inhabit the settings of his stories. He does not do this in every piece, but he does do it in stories like “A Long Day in November,” “The Sky is Gray,” and “Just Like A Tree.” In these stories, the Jim Crow “rules” exist on the periphery, especially in “A Long Day in November” and “Just Like A Tree.” The action in both stories takes place in the Quarters, a space where community exists and the overt aspects of racism do not enter, at least in the narratives presented. (The Quarters, like the rest of the area, is not immune to the intrusion of subjugating and oppressive forces.) The threat of violence looms like a shadow, relegating the people to the Quarters.

I’ve come to realize that Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, and others, say a lot more by their silences, or their brevity, than I realized when I was younger. They illuminate events and societal strictures through descriptive lyrics and music that creates catharsis, sadness, and joy all in the same moment. The characters in Gaines’s stories experience sadness, but they also encounter joy with the community that they inhabit.

For more information on Leadbelly in Shreveport, check out “Leadbelly and Fannin Street” on the 20X49 blog and  “Mister Tom Hughes’ Town” on the Shreveport Songs blog.

Gaudet, Marcia and Carol Wooton. “An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 200-216. Print.

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