Tag Archives: Woody Guthrie

ALBUM REVIEW: THE WAKES- ‘Venceremos!’ (2016)

by Pete Morgan

Glasgow Irish folk’n’roll hooligans.

They might all be Jock Tamson’s bairns but their Mammy is Roisin Dubh!

the-wakes

London Celtic Punks friends and favourites launched their fifth studio album at the end of September just gone with a fantastic hometown gig at the Classic Grand, Glasgow.  A gig that saw the band enhanced with a small brass section that added to the sound and showed how the boys are growing musically.

The CD, like the gig, doesn’t disappoint: Thirteen tracks over forty-five minutes show the band in top form and giving all and more that we’ve come to expect from Glasgow’s finest ‘punk, folk’n’rollers’. Building on and growing from previous CD’s including No Irish Need Apply and The Red and the Green, Venceremos shows a growth in musical maturity and songwriting while staying true to the bands fundamentals will have you hitting replay button time and time again.

wakes3

For this release the band have teamed up with Drakkar Records and the result is an all singing, all dancing package with a gatefold sleeve CD that includes a pullout booklet of photo’s and lyrics which can be bought from the band’s website below and also from the Glasgow independent radical bookshop Calton Books (link below).

Opening with an irresistible punk/new wave beat of ‘Within These Towns’ the gauntlet is thrown down: the song delivers up a crushing criticism of politicians  of the Thatcher era who turned their backs on those towns and people reliant on manufacturing as they allowed industry to fall into irreversible decline and communities abandoned. A bleak subject of towns

“where we are born to die, to live our lives …”

is nonetheless invested with defiance and pride in it’s delivery and any thought of being downbeat is erased with the upbeat, ska infused, Rise. A story that dances along and is bound to become a live favourite, telling a tale of Dublin, Easter 1916, and provided lots of opportunities for a sing-a-long while raising a clenched fist…

wakes1-2

‘No Human is Illegal’ as a song is a class apart. This song possibly best defines the ethos of the band: humanitarian, international, caring, willing to stand up, to wear those hearts on sleeves … A simple enough statement, but a statement that carries undeniable power, delivered almost in an understated manner. This song is impossible to resist and invites us into a quiet corner, the lyrics falling softly, yet challenging the scaremongers and those who use sensationalist headlines to turn a profit  … but we’re left in no doubt

“That old bullshit just don’t cut it any more”

There’s no time to sit around as ‘Whisky Afternoon’ has us back on our feet as the band ‘rock-out’ to an enjoyable wee number of an afternoons drinking that we’ll all be familiar with, same goes for this tune that has a solid back beat that moves it (too?) quickly to a conclusion and then it’s on into ‘The Battle of George Square’: Tanks on the streets of Glasgow to quell the red Clyde revolution. Again the music and lyrics invoke an atmosphere that’ll put on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with Glasgow’s working class.

wakes2The Wakes don’t do shying away and, just as with No Human, they address issues head-on: the turning of young men into state killing machines in ‘Kings Shilling’, (touch of Skids/Big Country?) the bloodshed  in the ‘Holyland’. The domestic home-grown issues of poor housing and rising rent are highlighted in ‘Nae Soft Touch’ (touch of Christy Moore about this one) telling the story of issues from Govan, 1915, that are just as relevant today.

Track 8, ‘I Believe’, a ‘up-beat’ cry of positivity , a rallying cry and affirmation of the power of people is driving along on the back of some beautiful brass that shows how the band, as musicians, have grown and the sound of the Wakes continues seeking out avenues to explore. While ‘Ramblin’ Man’ pays tribute to the great Woody Guthrie in a tune that will almost have you up on the floor square dancing! But wait, whats next, a fecking polka! ‘Freighter of the Dead’ sails us over choppy waters navigating the straits of Pogue Mahone and onto the shores of Gorgol Bordello in a rollickin’ rocking good time tune that shows the boys are well able to let their hair down (sorry Chris!) and this is another tune that will fill the dance floors. As we’ve come to expect there’s a track from the ‘homeland’ that’s given the Wakes unique and personalised  treatment: ‘Erin Go Bragh’ starts off familiar enough but the bass playing and thunderous drumming supported by the chants gives this a whole new life and the song feels ‘epic’, a TV shows turned into a blockbuster of a movie!

wakes-4

The Wakes (left to right): Paul- Vocals/Guitar * Conor- Banjo/Mandolin * Chris- Vocals/Bass/Saxophone/Flute * Danny- Whistles * Eamonn- Drums * Christopher James- Harmonica/Guitar.

Closing on the title track, ‘Venceramos’ the song as well as the album as a whole, is a triumph: carried along on the back of a guitar sound that gets under the sink, drums & bass that get the heart pumping, the piercing harmonica, everything comes together with the united rising vocals in a song that is an affirmation of the power of truth against evil, the truth of those who struggle against the evil of corruption, greed, inhumanity … In an echo of Bobby Sands we’re told:

“You can try to kill the dreamer but the dream never dies’ and the heart grows huge with the refrain Venceremos! Venceremos! We Will Overcome …”

Venceremos is a must have, the Wakes a must see.

Discography

These Hands (2007) No Irish Need Apply (2009) Stripped Back Sessions Vol. 1 (2011) The Red and the Green (2013)

Buy The Album

 FromTheBand  Amazon  iTunes  CaltonBooks 

Contact The Wakes

WebSite  Facebook  Bandcamp  Twitter  Soundcloud  YouTube

(live in London last year at the Cock Tavern in association with London Celtic Punks and the Hayes Bhoys CSC- thanks to Deano for filming)

 

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!
CundeezVegBarColour (2)
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: THE GREATEST SONGS OF WOODY GUTHRIE (1972)

“I hate a song that makes you think you´re not any good! I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too thin or too that. Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or your hard travelling”

FREE DOWNLOAD

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie was the single most important American folk music artist of the 20th century, in part because he turned out to be such a major influence on the popular music of the second half of the 20th century, a period when he himself was largely inactive. He performed continually throughout his life with his guitar frequently displaying the slogan ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’. His greatest significance lies in his songwriting. Songs like the standard ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and much-covered works as ‘Deportee’, ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘Hard, Ain’t It Hard’, ‘Hard Travelin’, ‘1913 Massacre’, ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ are all featured on ‘The Greatest Songs Of Woody Guthrie’ in one way or another.

Woody1Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in the oil boom town of Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. He went on the road when only 13 years old after his mother was debilitated by Huntington´s Chorea, a incurable nerve disease which would eventually kill Woody himself in 1967. During the years leading up to the Second World War he was with the refugees of the Dust Bowl on their trail westward, with the migrant workers in the California orchards, in the factories and mines where workers struggled for union recognition to gain better pay and conditions, with the black Americans against the prejudice facing them and during the war he was in the navy. Throughout all these experiences and a life full of tragedy his faith in people and his belief that the ordinary person would win in the end never faltered.

Most of those performances and recordings came after Guthrie’s enforced retirement due to illness in the early ’50s. During his heyday, in the 1940s, he was a major-label recording artist, a published author, and a nationally broadcast radio personality. But the impression this creates, that he was a multi-media star, is belied by his personality and his politics. Restlessly creative and prolific, he wrote, drew, sang, and played constantly, but his restlessness also expressed itself in a disinclination to stick consistently to any one endeavour, particularly if it involved a conventional, cooperative approach. Nor did he care to stay in any one place for long. This individualism was complemented by his left-wing political views. During his lifetime, much attention was given in the U.S. to whether left-wingers or even liberals were or had ever been members of the Communist party. No reliable evidence emerged that Guthrie was, but there can be little doubt where his sympathies lay!
Sadly it was as Woody’s health declined to the point of permanent hospitalization in the 1950’s that his career took off. His songs and his example served as inspiration for the folk revival in general and, in the early 1960’s, Bob Dylan in particular. By the mid-’60s, his songs were appearing on dozens of records, his own recordings were being reissued and, in some cases, released for the first time, and his writings were being edited into books. This resurgence was in no way slowed by his death in 1967; on the contrary, it has continued for decades afterwards. New books are published and the Guthrie estate has invited such artists as Billy Bragg and Wilco in to write music for Guthrie’s large collection of unpublished lyrics, creating new songs to record.

So now you know a little bit more about the man in question what’s the story with the album?Woody2

There are two reasons why calling this album ‘The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie’ rather than some variation on the greatest hits idea makes sense. First, Guthrie was out singing these songs before there ever were any Billboard charts to help defiine exactly what constituted a hit. Second, although this album starts with Guthrie himself singing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ clearly his most famous and most popular song, the track shifts to the song being sung by the Weavers. Guthrie sings a few songs and a few duets, but mostly his songs are sung by other artists. So what we have here is a tribute album, originally a double-album now on a single CD, that represents some of the best first and second generation folk singers who followed in the path blazed by America’s troubadour. The first generation would be those artists that actually got to play with Guthrie, which would be not only the Weavers with Pete Seeger (the artist who most closely followed in Guthrie’s footsteps), but also Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The next generation is represented on the album by Odetta, Joan Baez, and Country Joe McDonald. Yes, there is an authenticity to hearing Guthrie sing his songs that nobody else can touch, but there is also something to be said for other artists replacing his rawness with more of the inherent beauty of his songs. Whichever you prefer there is a wealth of Woody material out there for you. Happy hunting!

Track Listing:
1. This Land Is Your Land- Woody Guthrie/The Weavers
2. Do Re Mi- Cisco Houston
3. So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh- The Weavers
4. Pastures Of Plenty- Odetta
5. Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)- Cisco Houston
6. 900 Miles- Cisco Houston
7. Roll On Columbia- Country Joe McDonald
8. Hard, Ain’t It Hard- Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston
9. Dirty Overhalls- Woody Guthrie
10. Riding In My Car (Take Me)- Woody Guthrie
11. Ship In The Sky- Cisco Houston
12. The Sinking Of The Reuben James- The Weavers
13. Rambling Round Your City- Odetta
14. Jesus Christ- Cisco Houston
15. When The Curfew Blows- Country Joe McDonald
16. 1913 Massacre- Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
17. Talking Fishing Blues- Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
18. Curly Headed Baby- Cisco Houston
19. Jackhammer John- The Weavers
20. The Great Historical Bum- Odetta
21. Pretty Boy Floyd- Joan Baez
22. Buffalo Skinners- Jim Kweskin
23. Hard Travelin’- Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry

CLICK

HERE

FOR YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD

“A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be
who’s hungry and where their mouth is or
who’s out of work and where the job is or
who’s broke and where the money is or
who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is”

For More Information On Woody Guthrie:

best place to start is the OfficialWebSite * a selection of free music is available at LastFM * Wikipedia * the WoodyGuthrieCenter  is dedicated to celebrating Woody’s life and legacy * Woody100 * the quotes of Woody Wikiquote * The RollingStone articles on Woody * Gerry Adams on Woody Guthrie Léargas *

THE LONDON CELTIC PUNKS ‘Stepping Stones’ CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEW SERIES

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

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.

CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEW: VARIOUS ARTISTS- ‘Don’t Mourn. Organize!- Songs Of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill’ (1990)

AND FREE DOWNLOAD

Joe Hill’s powerful words have moved countless artists to blend politics and song and this dramatic tribute to the Industrial Workers of the World songwriter and activist Joe Hill, features songs by and about Hill performed by Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, Earl Robinson, Paul Robeson and others. An absolute treasure for anyone interested in American folk and labour music.

for your free download click on the album sleeve

for your free download click on the album sleeve

Joe Hill, poet, songwriter, and organizer is arguably the most popular working class artist in American culture. This album, named after Joe Hill’s famous last words before he was executed by the State of Utah, is a testament to his power as a musical and cultural figure. It also attempts to secure his place in our memory. The album consists of two elements, Joe Hill songs performed by important interpreters and songs about him, again in historically important performances. Among the former, number Harry McClintock singing ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, Pete Seeger doing ‘Casey Jones (The Union Scab)’ and Cisco Houston’s version of ‘The Tramp’. The latter category contains the more varied and more interesting contributions. Among these are poet Kenneth Patchen’s spoken word piece ‘Joe Hill Listens to the Praying’, Billy Bragg singing Phil Ochs ‘The Ballad Of Joe Hill’ and both Paul Robeson and Earl Robinson performing the Robinson-penned number Joan Baez made her own, ‘Joe Hill’ with its immortal lines

“I dreamed I saw, I dreamed I saw, Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” says he, “I never died” says he
“I never died” says he”

He was born Joel Emmanuel Haggland in Sweden, the ninth son of a railroad worker. His father died when he was eight years old, and he went to work in order to help support his mother and six siblings. When Hill’s mother died in 1902, he emigrated to the United States. Until 1910 practically nothing is known of Joe Hill’s life. It is known that he was in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, as he sent back an eyewitness account of the horror and devastation caused by this disaster to Sweden, where it was published in a local newspaper. Somewhere along the line he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom and this was shortened by work mates to Joe Hill. By the time he finally surfaces in San Pedro, CA, in 1910, it is clear that he had been working a long time as a migrant laborer, and was on intimate terms with the suffering and misery experienced by the families of his fellow workers under the conditions of this era.
Joe Hill
In San Pedro, he joined the International Workers of the World, or as popular slang had it the ‘Wobblies’, a Chicago-based labour organization which set itself up as a worldwide advocate and agitator for the cause of worker’s rights and the unionization of industries. Towards the end of 1910, Hill published a letter in the IWW’s in-house publication International Worker, identifying himself as a member of the Portland chapter of the IWW. At the beginning of 1911, Hill is found in Tijuana, attempting to mobilize an IWW offensive to assist the overthrow of the Mexican government. From then until January 1914, Hill’s trail once again runs cold, this time not due to a lack of information, but to an impossible wealth of Joe Hill sightings; Hill became such a legendary ‘wobbly’ that he is accredited as being present at practically all IWW functions nationwide.
Joe HillIt was during this time that Hill established himself as the main event of IWW rallies, singing songs he had written that pilloried capitalist bosses, scabs, glorified the ordinary American worker, and urged on the creation of unions. The lyrics to these songs were published in the IWW’s ‘Little Red Song Book’ and achieved wide distribution therein, but most of the thousands who got to know such songs as ‘Union Maid’, ‘The Preacher And The Slave’, ‘There Is A Power In The Union’ and ‘Workers of the World, Awaken!’ heard them sung by Joe Hill in person. The lyrics were usually simple, easily memorized and set to tunes that were already known to the assembly at the IWW meetings. As Joe once said
“A song is learned by heart and repeated over and over and if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read.”
In January 1914, Joe was apprehended in Salt Lake City on a entirely circumstantial charge of murdering a local grocer who also happened to be a retired law enforcement officer. During the trial he offered little to no evidence in his own defense, and was more openly hostile to the volunteer attorneys representing him than he was to the prosecution, who sought the death penalty. Hill was convicted and executed by a firing squad on November 19, 1915, despite the protestations of the Swedish Ambassador to the United States, Helen Keller, and President Woodrow Wilson himself, all of whom had pleaded with the governor of Utah for a new trial for Joe. His own unexplainable behavior under these dire circumstances suggests that, though innocent of the charge, he had resigned himself to the notion of becoming a martyr for the cause of the unions. After his execution, the coffin containing Joe’s body was hastily transported to Chicago, where it was joined by a crowd of 30,000 mourners in a massive IWW funeral procession through the city streets.
Joe HillThe thirty or so songs that Joe Hill wrote were once thought so dangerous that many would dare not sing them in public or risk arrest. To this repertoire was added an additional powerful anthem of the left, entitled ‘Joe Hill’ and written in 1925 by the poet Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson. This was sung at workers’ rallies in the 1930s and 1940s, when millions were in attendance. Although the red-baiting of the 1950s would eventually decimate the American left, by this time, Joe’s work had already left its mark on such singers as Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Pete Seeger and other left-leaning folk singers who would further influence Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and those who would become leading voices in the 1960s protests against the Vietnam War. Famously Baez began her appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival by singing ‘Joe Hill’ as her first number.
“If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains; Every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains. Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill; Fleets and armies of the nation, will at their command stand still”
Unfortunatly Joe Hill never found himself in a situation where he could be recorded and his influence was mainly spread from singer to singer. Only in the late ’90s did historians take much interest in Joe Hill as a performer and artist and the study has already revealed much about the origins of politically oriented folk songs in America. It appears that Joe Hill was truly the first protest singer in America and certain of his specific metaphors, such as his notion of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ are encountered repeatedly in subsequent generations of folk songs that deal with social and political change.

Excellent both as an album and as a cultural document, we will not forget the important legacy Joe Hill bequeathed to us. It’s a beautiful album for a beautiful man.  This is REAL subversion, from real people, native Americans and immigrants like Joe, who weren’t playing games or striking poses, but who really saw things as they are and really wanted to change the world. Joe Hill was a hard core working class true American hero.
“I will die like a true-blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning – organize”
International Workers Of The World

 JOIN THE INTERNATIONAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD 

Facebook  WebSite  Twitter  YouTube

IWW in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales

in Joe’s words “good luck to all of you”…

for an excellent piece on Joe Hill go to the Black 47 Blog here where New Yorks finest celtic-punk band give you there spin on the life and death of Joe. Well worth reading…

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.

%d bloggers like this: