Tag Archives: Leadbelly

INTERVIEW WITH COMRADE X

Hitting home with the force of a police raid on a late night lock-in at the dodgiest South London boozer Comrade X emerges from the rubble of political failure, X Factor and wall to wall mediocrity to raise a pint of Guinness to the spirit of 1977!
Over the last couple of years it has been our pleasure to make the acquaintance of a good few people, who we are extremely proud to say, have become part of the extended London Celtic Punks family. If you have attended a London Celtic Punks gig over the last few years then I am sure you will have witnessed our auld mucker Comrade X starting off proceedings by kicking up a storm with his own unique brand of acoustic-punk. Best described as “one geezer, one guitar, three chords and the truth” and, my own favourite, “Woody Guthrie meets Oi!” he’s just an ordinary bloke with an acoustic guitar and the truth to tell. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about what he does, but what does he think on the important matters of the day? We asked yer man a few questions over a few pints of stout so read on and find out…
Comrade3

Now Comrade X has been around on the music scene a lot longer than any of us have been so we thought we’d give him a chance to fill us in (not literally!) and give us the benefit of his knowledge. Now there may be a small handful of people reading this who are not aware of your contribution to the world of alternative music so want to enlighten them? What started your interest in music and how long you been playing and what bands you been involved in up to now? I was 14 when the Pistols appeared on Bill Grundy and it just blew me away. Till that point I was wearing tank tops, Oxford Bags and DM’s and fancied myself as a boot boy with an aspiration to be a face on the Shed End at Chelsea. After Grundy I wanted to know more about these punks. I bought New Rose when it came out and that was that – but it was really the first Clash album that shifted everything for me. After that I bought a guitar out of a junk shop in Leatherhead and started rehearsing with my first band Discipline at the Cabin Club down on Longmead Estate in Epsom. That would have been some time in 1977. We had guitars that chopped your fingers off and 5 watt Woolworths’ practice amps – we were dire but a fire had been lit. 

Comrade1Like most Londoners there’s more than just a drop of Celtic blood coursing through your veins. Do you think that has effected or contributed to how you play or why you play or your beliefs? Well, my grandad was from Kilkenny and arrived in Liverpool sometime in the 1890’s before heading to the East End. Of course I never knew him – he was dead by the time my dad was ten years old and he was orphaned and bought up by his older sister. The family name was changed by my grandad and I only know what my dad and his older brothers told me. Grandad sang rebel songs in pubs around Stepney and his favourite was Bold Robert Emmett so I was told. I think there’s a fair drop of that spirit in what I do. What? Singing rebel songs in a pub? I’d say so!!
Having been in bands and played solo yourself which figures or bands do you think have been the important links between the past and the present and folk/celtic/traditional music and punk/rock music? Biggest influence on me is Joe Strummer – his catalogue from the 101ers to the Mescaleros stands the test of time. The Mescaleros picked up some of Joe’s Celtic connections back to his own Scottish roots. He also introduced a lot of us to Woody Guthrie and through that Leadbelly and some of that deep roots Americana which of course all tracks back through the Celtic immigrant trail. I remember seeing the Pogues in their early days and for loads of us with an Irish/punk background lots of bits started dropping into place. Great to see new bands tipping their hat to that pioneering work by the Pogues and the Men They Couldn’t Hang. The Lagan are the tops for me, that might be a Surrey thing, but they are run close by outfits like Matilda’s Scoundrels and Black Water County. Steve Earle deserves a nod here as well – I was lucky enough to get to work with him a few years back. Top fella
 How you find the London Irish scene these days? Obviously the old community has shrunk and the new arrivals seem, to me anyway, not to be interested in Irish music. Maybe I’m reading it wrong. I certainly hope so. Is there still a community out there? So many pubs have closed or changed and communities are much more dissipated. I’m from Epsom where there used to be five big mental hospitals and they were staffed throughout by Irish immigrants working alongside colleagues from across the Commonwealth. My dad worked his way up to managing and inspecting the quality of those NHS services. Those hospitals have all closed but the social clubs in those places were something else. The sense of community was massive. The loss of those big centres of employment has had an inevitable impact.

As I say you’ve been performing for a hell of a long time in bands and now as a solo act but it has been said (and I am in agreement) that being a solo artist is the hardest thing to do. Just yourself on the stage and nowhere to hide. What does it take to be a solo performer. I would say big nuts and a big ego but obviously that’s not right for everyone! Yep, nowhere to hide! That is a bit of a downside but on the upside there’s no one to row with other than yourself and the odd sound man who thinks that every solo artist with a guitar should sound like Cat Stevens.

What bands are you listening to at the moment? Do you follow celtic-punk at all. Any bands out of the scene that you like? I’ve already bigged up The Lagan, Matilda’s Scoundrels and Black Water County but I can add to that Mick O’Toole and of course the old troopers Neck who I’ve know since time began. I pick up loads of stuff from your recommendations from around the globe and I think that the Irish influenced punk/folk scene is healthy as fuck – cant wait to see the Cundeez down in Brixton as well.

Comrade2There’s always been a big debate about celtic-punk and whether or not it is cultural appropriation and politically correct for non-Irish bands singing about the Irish getting pissed and fighting and pubs and what have you. Personally I love it. The idea of the likes of Indonesian or Brazilian bands getting into The Dubliners and The Wolfe Tones after listening to the Dropkick Murphys. I mean its not like The Dubliners ever wrote a song about getting pissed is it? I think its just a case of snobbery but do you think it’s ok? I agree. I’m sick of being told what is and what isn’t acceptable and until everything is narrowed down to a tiny spec. I like covering Holy Spook by the Popes – “…I wrecked my life on whisky, bad wives, taking pills and cursing…”. That’s just the blues mate and it doesn’t belong to anyone. This “cultural appropriation” stuff is just more hand-wringing, liberal bollocks.

Now London Celtic Punks have always had the by-line of ‘Folk Punk Football’ and football is very dear to your heart as we know. Obviously the modern game is shite and the only real football fans are to be found in the lower divisions and non-league. That about right? ha ha – no, you are completely wrong and modern football, as invented by Sky TV, is brilliant! What’s the matter with you?
How long you been going to Sutton United? Do you think supporting a team that has never really won anything has made you a better person? Does learning the value of defeat and pride in losing but trying your hardest teach you something that is missing in the Premiership or even society? I’ve been going to Sutton since the early seventies. My old man took me down there to try and wean me off Chelsea and a career as a hooligan. He wasn’t totally successful but I always kept a link with the U’s. About ten years ago I jacked in the Chelsea season ticket and now it’s Sutton home and away. I love it. I meet loads of old punks who see the connection with those old values in the non league game. Never won anything? We won the bloody league last season! And did I ever tell you about the time we beat Coventry City in the FA Cup? 
As well as football you are heavily involved in promoting trade unionism. The decline of the unions is a terrible thing but what do you think can be done to reverse that trend. My own union is a waste of space and I may as well throw my money down a drain but as a good friend of mine (a Scouser of course!) once said joining a union is like having house insurance you don’t expect the house to burn down tomorrow but what do you do if it does. I got involved in NUPE in the early eighties when I lost my job as a sparky and took a job as hospital porter. Brilliant days and we were solid as a rock before everything was ripped apart and privatised. You’ve got to have that strength in the workplace or you’ve got nothing.
With so much music in your life. What are your happiest memories of playing. The best gig or best people… Tolpuddle main stage last week was one of my best ever gigs. Strummercamp and that night at the Water Rats with you lot, Anto Morra and Pogue Traders is up there as well. The rest is just a blur of fast living. 
Comrade4Right you have hinted at this every now and then on stage so lets get the full unabridged story out of you now. How did you manage to get Neck’s anti-racist single ‘Every Bodies Welcome To The Hooley’ into the national charts? Ha, that really was the wide boys revenge mate. I pulled in favours with every journo I know and got the band on BBC prime time TV and radio and we had people targeting the record shops that used to file returns for the official chart. It was some proper old spivery and I am rightly proud of it.
What’s the immediate future hold for Comrade X. Any gigs/ festivals we should be looking out for you at? What about recordings. Ain’t it time you got something down on disc… or vinyl’s coming back you know? I’ve got a mate up in Luton who has built an analogue studio and I’ll be doing some recording up there in the autumn – some great shows coming up very shortly with you lot and the Veg Bar, The Lagan at the Fighting Cocks and Undercover Festival. And I will be helping my old mate Noel Martin from Menace with his bands 40th anniversary bash at the 100 Club. I’m enjoying myself and you can tune in through the Comrade X Facebook page.
 

Thanks Comrade for taking the time to answer a few questions. It’s a privilege to include you as a member of the London Celtic Punks crew and work with you over the last few years, so here’s to many many more!
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You can catch Comrade X playing live at our next London Celtic Punks gig later this year on Saturday 3rd September on home territory in South London. He will be supporting Dundee based bagpipe punk band THE CUNDEEz on their London debut gig. All starts at 7-30pm sharp and costs just a fiver on the door. You can check out the Facebook event here to find out all the details of the venue and the other support bands or go to our What’s On- Upcoming Gigs & Events here.
Contact Comrade X

CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEW: LEADBELLY- ‘Easy Rider’ (1999)

FREE DOWNLOAD
Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, is a truly unique figure in American music of the 20th century. Often mistaken as a blues performer he was a profound influence on the folk stars of the 1940s such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who in turn influenced the folk revival and the development of rock music from the 1960s onward, which made his induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 wholly appropriate.
Leadbelly- 'Easy Rider' (1999)

click on the album sleeve to be re-directed to your free download

Lead Belly was an old-school wrecking ball of folk-singing awesomeness who worked hard labour as a sharecropper in the Depression-era South, lived it up with hot chicks, stiff drinks and smoke-filled clubs in Harlem, kicked his enemies’ arses in at least five hardcore back-alley knife fights, escaped from jail once, convinced the governors of two states to pardon him from murder raps using nothing more than a guitar and his singing voice, and went on to basically help create modern music by influencing everyone from Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra to Kurt Cobain and Jack White. Tough as hell, built like a brick shithouse, he drank hard, fought harder, played the twelve-string guitar better than any man alive and once responded to being stabbed in the throat with a prison shank by pulling the shiv out of his own neck and almost murdering the chap with it.

Huddie William Ledbetter was born on a Louisiana bayou in January of 1888. One of five kids, Ledbetter’s dad was a sharecropper – a tough, calloused-handed wandering manual laborer who worked twelve-hour shifts in the hot Louisiana sun for basically zero pay. Huddie Ledbetter quickly realized that bouncing around the countryside with his dirt-poor family looking for backbreaking jobs wasn’t his thing, so he decided to get the hell out of there, beat the crappy hand that circumstance dealt him and become a superstar musician. By twelve he’d dropped out of schooland by fifteen he’d taught himself how to play the accordion and was playing shows in the St. Paul’s Bottom neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana – a hardcore red light district. Surrounded by drunken debauchery didn’t derail Lead Belly’s quest and by the age of sixteen he was married with two kids. By twenty he was divorced, out of Shreveport, wandering the South playing shows in any venue that would have him and working hard labor jobs when the music didn’t pay the bills.

Lead BellyI imagine Lead Belly’s early life being kind of like Tommy Johnson in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, only with more face-shanking brutality. Lead rode the rails, traveling the land from the beer-soaked streets of Shreveport’s seediest neighborhoods to the hottest clubs in Deep Ellum, Texas, hanging out at every bar, saloon and music venue along the way. But Lead wasn’t just there to party. He made it his life’s mission to listen to every musician he could find and absorb all the musical knowledge he could. He learned to play the piano, guitar, harmonica, mandolin and violin, became the undisputed master of the twelve-string guitar, and spoke to so many famous blues and folk musicians that he became a walking encyclopedia of American folk tunes. Before long he could play basically every folk song there was and when he wasn’t putting a new spin on old standards he was writing badass songs about cowboys, sailors, women, booze, prison and God. And Hitler. Along the line he worked hard jobs to earn enough cash to put food on the table, hammering railroad spikes, picking cotton, herding cattle as a cowboy, and hammering fence posts. Real work and work he was damn good at thanks to his being basically gigantic and stronger than a team of oxen.

Leadbelly’s budding music career hit a slight hitch in 1915, when the folk guitarist was arrested for punching a dude in the face, pulling a gun in the middle of a barroom brawl, then pummeling someone with it. He was sentenced to serve an unspecified period of hard labour on a chain gang in Texas, hard work that paid even worse than sharecropping. Two days into his mandatory community service whacking rocks with a pickaxe Lead slipped off when the shotgun-toting guards weren’t looking, bolted out of there on foot, escaped the prison work patrol, fled to the next county, changed his name, and went right back to work as a manual laborer by day and an aspiring musician by night.

Lead Belly

He managed to lay low long enough for the heat to die down, but this stone-cold, two-fisted badass was a hot-blooded man whose profession required that he frequent a lot of divey bars populated by a fair number of douchebags, and trouble found him once again a few years later. The details of this particular story are a little sketchy, but apparently in 1918 Lead’s cousin’s husband was doing some fucked-up bullshit, so Lead decided that the best way to resolve the situation was to show up at the dude’s house with a knife and a pistol and beat the shit out of him and all of his friends. In the ensuing battle Lead Belly shot the husband dead and knocked another guy unconscious, a feat of badassitude that earned our hero a sentence of 7-to-35 years in the Texas State Penitentiary.

During his stay in the clink, Lead Belly made a hell of a name for himself by smuggling in a guitar and spending all of his free time singing songs and playing music for the guards and prisoners. Eventually, the Governor of Texas got word of what was going on and decided he needed to see this ‘Singing Convict’ for himself, and he was so goddamned impressed that he ended up bringing his entire family and friends back a couple times just to hear Lead Belly shred the twelve-string. Six years into his sentence, Lead Belly wrote a song asking the Governor for a pardon.

He got it.

Most music historians agree that it was in prison that Huddie Ledbetter got his now-famous nickname. There are tons of theories as to why ‘Lead Belly’ is the name that stuck, and I dare say all of them are awesome. Some folks claim it’s because he was tough as hell, built like a wall of iron and muscle and capable of swinging an axe or shovel with twice the strength of any other inmate. Some say it’s because he could drink even the nastiest fucking bathtub moonshine and show no ill effects. Others claim that he once took a bullet (in some versions a full-on blast of shotgun buckshot) to the abdomen and survived. We will probably never know for sure, but we do know that from this point on Huddie Ledbetter was only known as Lead Belly.

Lead spent the next five years playing shows and working hard shitty day jobs, but trouble found him once again in 1930 when he and some friends got into a back alley New Orleans knife fight with a gang of white guys who were presumably looking for trouble and found a hell of a lot more of it then they’d bargained for. Lead was arrested for stabbing one of those fucks, and was sentenced to another lengthy stay, this time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Just like before, Lead Belly entertained the guards, inmates, and wardens with his music, but it turns out there are asshole critics everywhere – a couple years into his stay, some inmate jumped Lead Belly from behind and drove a prison shank into the side of his neck. Lead responded by throwing the dude down, pulling the fucking knife out of his own neck, and almost killing the guy with it. For the rest of his life he had a hardcore scar that spanned several inches across his throat.Lead Belly

Just like before, Lead Belly’s ‘singing convict’ thing began to draw some local attention, and it was in 1934 that a historian and folklorist named John Lomax showed up at the Lousiana State Pen to see what was up with this guy. He was so blown away that he had Lead record some tracks on a phonograph disc (this would mark the first time he was ever recorded). Lead recorded a song called ‘Goodnight, Irene’ that he’d learned from his uncle, as well as a couple other tracks. Lomax played them for the Governor of Louisiana, asking for a pardon, and once again, Lead Belly was let out of jail solely on account of his singing voice and musical prowess. The two men then spent the entirety of 1934 driving around the Depression-Era American South working together to collect and archive priceless samples of American folk music.

By 1936 Lead Belly found himself playing twice a night at the famous Apollo Theatre during the Harlem Renaissance, being recorded for TIMEnewsreels, having a bunch of awesome shit written about him in the People’s Daily (the official newspaper of the American Communist Party, which is slightly interesting considering he was not actually a communist) and getting his songs recorded by Columbia Records. His new-found fame was slightly derailed in 1939 when he was arrested for stabbing a guy during a knife-fight in Manhattan (this is documented knife-fight number five, for those of you keeping track at home), but once he got out of jail he jumped right back into action, getting a regular spot on a weekly CBS radio show where he played songs with guys like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Lead Belly was known as the ‘King of the Twelve-String’. Using a thumb pick to play the walking base line and finger-picking the rest, Lead accentuated his songs by stomping his foot and shouting out calls and cadences that he learned while working hard labor on the railroad line. His songs are interesting because Lead just tuned his guitar strings with one another rather than to the standard E, then adjusting his voice accordingly. He played shows every single day of his life, recorded a definitive collection of folk and blues songs, took requests at his shows and could instantaneously recall any of the 500 songs he knew from memory, and played whatever the hell he wanted whenever he felt like it. He never really saw any of the money he made, and lived basically in poverty in Harlem with his fourth wife, but I guess he was just happy doing what he liked to do- play music.

At the age of 53 Lead Belly registered for the Draft to enter World War II, but was never called up. He continued living it up and playing music, but during a European tour in 1949 (he was one of the first American folk artists to become popular in Europe) he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and forced to return home to the States. He died of ALS in December 1949 at the age of 61. One year after his death, Pete Seeger’s band, The Weavers, recorded a cover of Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight, Irene’. The song that got Lead Belly out of prison became a number one hit in 1950, earning the Weavers millions of dollars. A decade after that, Lead Belly’s arrangement of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ would be covered by some Brit band who are still living off the royalties of that one song.

There’s a life-sized statue of Lead Belly across from the courthouse in Shreveport, Louisiana and the state erected a marker at his grave site. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame early in the Hall’s life, and his music, which became insanely more popular after his death, has been covered by dozens of bands, all of whom cite the hard-drinking, hard-fighting Leadbelly as a major influence on their careers.

 Leadbelly Information

Leadbelly Foundation

Part of the ‘Classic Album Reviews’ series (here) where we bring you something a little bit different to what you’re use to. To lost gems that have inspired and provoked folk music and musicians right up to modern celtic-punk music. Usually out of print so we can provide a free download link for you.

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