Our Top 10 Lead Belly Songs list looks at folk and blues singer. He was known for his powerful voice. He’s also known for playing a variety of instruments such as the guitar, piano, violin, harmonica as well as other instruments. Lead Belly’s songs covered a plethora of topics. He talked about women, alcohol, prison, racism, cowboys, sailors and dancing. He also wrote about people in the news. He wrote about politicians, actors, actresses as well as others. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Some of his songs include “In the Pines,” “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Cotton Fields” as well as others.
Huddle William Ledbetter was born on January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949. He learned how to play instruments as a teenager. He performed at different locations in 1903. He developed his musical style after hearing different people perform. Lead Belly was in prison on different occasions. He was discovered while he was in prison. Folklore’s John and Alan Lomax visited the prison. They were recording local music. They met Lead Belly in prison and wanted to record with him. They were impressed by his tenor vocals. They worked on getting him released from prison so they could work with him. He started recording music once he was released from prison.
Negro Sinful Songs came out in 1939. It features the singles “Frankie and Albert,” “Black Betty,” “The Boll Weevil,” “The Gallis Pole” and “The Bourgeois Blues.” The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs came out in 1940. It features the singles “Midnight Special,” “Grey Goose,” “Stewball,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton” and “Alabama Bound.” Play Parties in Song and Dance was released in 1941. It features the singles “Skip to My Lou” and “Sally Walker.”
Work Songs of the U.S.A. was released in 1942. The album features the singles “Take This Hammer” and “Rock Island Line.” Songs By Lead Belly was released in 1944. It features the singles “How Long,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “On a Monday” and “John Henry.” Negro Folk Songs was released in 1946. It features the singles “Meeting at the Building,” “Julie Ann Johnson” and “Yellow Girl.”
Lead Belly had a lot of challenges before he became a singer. He proved that you could get in trouble and turn your life around. He was a talented singer as well as a musician. He was able to play multiple instruments. He helped pave the way for other singers and musicians to get started in the business. Our Top 10 Lead Belly Songs list will feature his best songs.
# 10 – John Hardy
The first song on our Top 10 Lead Belly Songs list is “John Hardy” from the album Masterworks. The song has a folk beat. The historical song is about a fictional character named John Hardy who was a railroad worker. He lived in West Virginia. He got drunk one night and got in an argument during a game of craps. He ended up killing a man during the altercation. He was arrested and charged with murder in the first degree. The man was sentenced to death and hanged in front of thousands of people. John Hardy made peace with God just before he died. He was baptized in a river. The lyrics earn an A+ for originality. There aren’t too many songs written like this one.
The song plays out like a Western movie. If you listen to the lyrics, you will think you are watching a movie. The track was covered by multiple artists dating back into the 1920s. Lead Belly also covered the track. He sings the song like he owned it. He tells an interesting story. He remains in character throughout the song. The song has a classic folk sound. The track shows off his skills as a guitarist. The track has an old-school sound to it, but you can still appreciate it.
This isn’t something that will be on the radio today, but the music sounds pretty good. If you get past the time it was recorded, you would have a great appreciation for the song. It’s time to talk about Lead Belly’s singing. He sounds superb on this track. His phrasing is on point. You can hear every word he sings. He belts during the chorus of the song. We were pleasantly surprised to hear him project his voice in that way.
# 9 – Rock Island Line
The next song on our Top 10 Lead Belly Songs list is “Rock Island Line.” The song is from the album Work Songs of the U.S.A. The song has a folk beat. The fictional song is about a train engineer asking the depot agent to let his train start out on the main line. The song was inspired by a prison work gang. It wasn’t hard for Lead Belly to record a song like this when he spent time in prison. He was able to use his time in prison to his advantage. Lead Belly recorded different songs throughout his career. He didn’t sing the same type of songs as others. He wanted to be original. The song can give you Roots vibes. It might have you thinking about what happened in the movie.
He recorded a stripped-down version of this track. It was a wise choice because the song sounds more personal as a stripped-down version than a track with a lot of instrumentation. Lead Belly’s voice sounds like music. His voice is the extra instrument the song needs. He chose to cover a song that you definitely wouldn’t hear on the radio. He had a talent of picking tracks that sound unique. H
e can romance you and make you think with his songs. Lead Belly preferred to sing songs with variety and we can’t be mad about that at all. This track is mostly spoken word. He does sing some of the lyrics, but he does a lot of talking in it. We would have preferred him to sing the song more so we could enjoy listening to his voice. With that said, he has a pleasant voice that is very easy on the ear. His tone is perfect for the instrumentation.
# 8 – Take This Hammer
The unique song is from the album Work Songs of the U.S.A. The song has a folk and blues beat. The work song is about slavery. The track is about prisoners who have to use a hammer while they are working. The song was inspired by prisoners who were forced to do manual labor. Lead Belly’s version was about slaves who worked in the heat. This is a song the slaves used to keep their spirits up while they were working hard. The track gives you an insight into what slaves went through during that time. He talks about how hard they had to work every day. The people in the song are working hard and dealing with manual labor.
This song will move you and take you to an emotional place. If you have ancestors who were around during this time, you will get an idea of what they went through during slavery days. This track gives you a lot of information about what happened during slavery days. It may be a work song, but slaves could relate to this song. It will hit you differently if you know someone who was a slave during that time.
Like our previous entry, this is an acoustic song. This track gives Lead Belly a chance to sing with minimal instrumentation. He sounds his best when it’s just him and the guitar playing. Lead Belly opens the song slowly and builds up the pace throughout the track. His voice is amazing and his tone is perfect for the theme of the song. There isn’t much to the song because he repeats a lot of the lines, but he makes the most of what lyrics are in the song.
# 7 – Grey Goose
The haunting song is from the album The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs. The song has a folk and blues sound. The religious song is about a man who tries to kill a goose, but he’s having trouble. He tries multiple times to kill the goose, but nothing works for him. At one point, the goose appears to be laughing at him. It looks like the grey goose is indestructible.
The theme of this song is unique. Lead Belly proved he could record a song with a creative theme like this one. Who sings a song about a goose that can’t be killed? This song would make a great comedic movie. We may not be able to understand the message in the song, but he makes it possible to enjoy the song.
Lead Belly takes the listeners on a creative journey and we’re ready to be taken on a ride. This may not be the type of theme we’re used to hearing, but we’re ready to take a chance and join him on this ride. He sang about things that many people wouldn’t dream of covering, but he did a great job with it. Even if you can’t relate to the song, you can feel his passion as he sings each word. The music is lively and upbeat. It doesn’t match the theme of the song, but you can move to it. Lead Belly is a talented guitarist.
It’s time to talk about his amazing voice. He could sing the alphabet and make it sound beautiful. There aren’t enough words to describe how beautiful is voice is. He gets really into the song midway through. He shouts and it sounds good. If someone else did it, they may have sounded like they were oversinging, but he managed not to sound that way. The belting helped the song pop. The song regained popularity when Nirvana covered it.
# 6 – Cotton Fields
The simple song is from the album Lead Belly Sings for Children. The song has a blues beat. The nostalgic song is about picking cotton. The track tries to downplay how hard it was to pick cotton. This is the type of track that would be good to hear if you want to have a history lesson about picking cotton. It was a terrible time for people, but Lead Belly managed to make it sound easier than it was for people during that time. He chose to make the song more fun than depressing. People were struggling badly during that time, but Lead Belly didn’t go that route. He wanted to embrace the idea of picking cotton.
The music is energetic. It was a strange way to go with the song since it’s about picking cotton. He could have chose a somber beat, but he went with the opposite of it. He chose to have upbeat music for the subject. Lead Belly chose to put a positive spin on something that was hard on people.
It was a different choice to make, but it doesn’t hurt the song at all. The music can put a smile on your face instead of you being upset about what’s going on in the song. Lead Belly can convince anyone of anything with his vocals. He hits every note effortlessly. His vocals are heartfelt. He will have you eating out of the palm of his hand with his voice. He will touch your heart with his chilling vocals.
# 5 – The Bourgeois Blues
The next song on our Top 10 Lead Belly Songs list is “the Bourgeois Blues.” The track is from the album Negro Sinful Songs. The track has a folk and blues beat. The political song is about him protesting against the Jim Crow laws. He discusses topics such as racism, segregation and the terrible living conditions of African Americans in the south. Unfortunately, this song has proven to still be relevant today.
Since racism is still a thing in this country, this song will hit close to home for African Americans. If the lyrics were suitable for today’s music, you would think this was a current song. This is the type of track that was designed to make you think. You may think about what has changed and what hasn’t since the song was recorded. The song is decades old, but it can still resonate today.
The music will have you on the dance floor. You can move to the bouncy beat. Lead Belly and his 12-string guitar is excellent. He is right up there with one of the great guitar players. He may not be one of the first names you think of when you think of guitarists, but he’s right up there. He sings the song in a bluesy way. He was inspired to write this song because he and his wife experienced racism in the south.
You can hear the pain in his voice as he talks about the racist incident he faced with his wife. He wanted everyone to get the message of what happened during that time. Racism was at an all-time high when this song was recorded. There hasn’t been too much of a difference as far as racism goes when you think about it. You will take something away regardless of your nationality.
# 4 – Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
The sympathetic song is from the album of the same name. The song has a blues and folk sound. The dramatic song is about a man who finds out that his wife has been cheating on him. The man goes out into the middle of the night and gets killed. It’s not clear if it was an accident or a murder?
This has the makings of a great soap opera. It has a lot of drama to keep you interested. Lead Belly talks about a man who finds out that his wife is cheating on him. He demands to know where she slept the night before. Have you been in a situation like this one? If you were, you will know where he’s headed with this song. You may find yourself singing along with him while he questions where she slept.
This is a timeless subject. This is the first song on our Lead Belly Songs list that doesn’t talk about political subjects. This is something most of us deal with in our everyday lives. Infidelity is a topic that will never get old with singers. Someone is always cheating on somebody so the subject never gets old. Lead Belly knew how to write songs that will hit close to home.
The song was recorded years ago, but this will never get old. People find creative ways to talk about infidelity. Lead Belly managed to make this subject sound different from the pack. His vocals are very strong on this track. His phrasing is on point. You will know every word he’s saying. This is the type of track you could listen to with the shades down and a drink in your hand.
# 3 – The Midnight Special
The inspirational song is from the album Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs. The song has a folk beat. The motivational song is about a train that goes through at night. It is called “The Midnight Special.” The light of the train gives the prisoners hope that things will get better. If the light shines on them, they take it as a sign that they will be released from prison.
A lot of rock fans know this song from the greater Creedence Clearwater Revival version. Many others remember the Friday night concert and video series that ran on broadcast television in the 1970s called The Midnight Special.
This song is deep and meaningful. It will put you in a different headspace. This isn’t a theme that everyone can relate to. It gives you an idea of what the prisoners must have been going through while they were incarcerated. They had to rely on the light of a train in order to be free. You will have to listen to the lyrics because the title of the song doesn’t give anything away. You wouldn’t know the plight of the inmates with Lead Belly’s song.
Lead Belly had a unique way of telling a story. He never recorded the same types of music. He liked to change things up so he wouldn’t keep telling the same story. He kept things fresh and we couldn’t be happier about that. The music has an old-school sound. The beat is melancholy so it matches the theme of prisoners waiting to be set free. Lead Belly sings this song with background singers.
They harmonize very well in the background. They do their best to support Lead Belly. He shows everyone who is the man when it comes to recording songs that will be like an arrow to the heart. This isn’t the type of song you would expect to hear on the radio because it’s not a mainstream song, but it deserves to be heard.
# 2 – Black Betty
The metaphoric song is from the album Negro Sinful Songs. The song has a folk beat. The debatable song is about a number of things. It can be a nickname, a bottle of whiskey, a weapon or a prison transfer wagon. You can listen to the lyrics and interpret the song the way you see fit. The great thing about this song is that it doesn’t have to one meaning. You can interpret this song in different ways. It’s a treat when a song has multiple meanings because you can make up your own mind on what the song means. This is another track that wouldn’t necessarily get airplay on the radio because of the subject matter, but it’s a song we need to hear.
This is the first song on our list that’s a capella. This song works without instruments. It gives you a chance to enjoy listening to Lead Belly’s vocals. He will take you to places unknown with his voice. He sounds like he’s scatting on this track. He showed another skill on this track by scatting. The song was given a broader audience when Ram Jam covered this track. People began to see the song for what it is. The masterpiece deserves to get airplay. This isn’t the same type of clichéd songs that we’re used to hearing on the radio. Lead Belly’s vocals are fantastic on this jam. He doesn’t have to remember too much for the chorus, but that just means it’s an easy chorus to remember.
#1 – Goodnight, Irene
The number one song on our Top 10 Lead Belly Songs list is “Goodnight, Irene.” The song is from the album Songs By Lead Belly. The song has a folk sound. The dark song is about a man who is in a bad relationship with a woman named Irene. He talks about his pain and frustration being in the relationship. He has suicidal thoughts because he wants his relationship with her to be over.
This song is different and may make you feel emotional. Singers don’t usually sing songs about wanting to commit suicide just to get away from someone. Lead Belly recorded mind-blowing songs. He didn’t stick with the same subjects as his counterparts. He wanted to stand out from the pack and this song did the trick.
Lead Belly recorded an acoustic version of this song. He is playing the guitar on this song. The song doesn’t need any more instruments. The acoustic guitar is perfect for the song. The meaning of the song might bring tears to your eyes. You will understand this song more if you have someone in your life who wanted to end it all.
This song will bring back powerful memories for you. Lead Belly sings the song and he makes comments in the background. He is building a picture and we want to see the outcome of it. He sings the chorus in a very catchy way. He makes you want to sing along with him. The chorus will stay in your head long after you hear it.
Top 10 Lead Belly Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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