Poetry, Blues, and the Wrong Discussion

Interesting article over at The Daily Swarm about folk/blues singer Leadbelly’s lyrics as poetry:

“I don`t know if it’s racism or plain old Aristotelian categorization that keeps that keeps Leadbelly`s driven, mad, wily lyrics out of the pantheon. Maybe it`s both, and snobbery to boot. I know Leadbelly himself probably could have been inspired to write something about it if the subject had been brought up.”

The writer makes some great points, but fails to take into consideration that Leadbelly didn’t write many of the songs that he performed; he picked them up along the way, and then reinterpreted them in his own style.

I wouldn’t want to cheapen the legacy of Leadbelly, because the guy is as important to American folk music as Woody Guthrie, and he influenced everybody from Bob Dylan to Nirvana (both covered songs he recorded); still, the author of the piece made some good points, but I think some bold claims were made without looking at the big picture.

The other day when I posted the new Gil-Scott Heron video, I did it because not only am I a great admirer of Heron’s, but because it showcases his take on a Robert Johnson song — one which (as far as I know) Johnson wrote himself. But not all of Johnson’s most popular songs were his own, or were created by him. One of his most famous songs, “Sweet Home Chicago”, is a variation on an old standard called “Komomo Blues”. Johnson’s “shtick” (your call if you believe it or not) of selling his soul to the devil brings to mind the story of Faust, but in all likelihood was influenced by another blues musician of the time: most fingers point to Tommy Johnson (no relation), who told a very similar tale.

Really, authorship isn’t the point. Later, when blues came into vogue, bands like The Rolling Stones started their career covering other artists. Bob Dylan covered Guthrie, and hip hop started out as people rapping over samples of other artist’s work — it’s musical traditions moving from one generation to the next. While the writer of the article tried to make a point that Leadbelly should be counted among the great American poets, he failed to point out that Leadbelly is a name that people hardly mention when talking about the most important figures in American music, and before you start talking about poetry, that is the issue that should be discussed.