People who don’t know blues music think it’s sad music, but it isn’t.
One of the first musicians I really loved was the legendary bluesman, BB King. I bought his album Live and Well, and got to see him play live twice. I have a poor memory but I still remember the last time I saw him play. My friend Christie and I went to see him at Nautica. The stage manager came out and told the audience BB was doing well and he was excited to be there but we needed to remember he wasn’t in great health. She didn’t want people to yell for him to keep playing and tire him out too much. People looked at each other blankly, not knowing what to expect. Then BB came out, waving the stage manager off as if she was a pesky house fly. He was still BB King, still had that voice and could play the guitar like nobody’s business.
Huddie William Ledbetter was better known as Leadbelly, and he is one of the greatest bluesmen ever. I need to write a separate post about his life to do him any kind of justice but today I just wanted to write about two of his songs: Take This Hammer and The Midnight Special.
I like Leadbelly a lot but I was never crazy about Take This Hammer because of its monotonous, repetitive feel. But lately I’ve developed a real appreciation for it. Like Sixteen Tons is to the Appalachian coal miners, so is Take This Hammer to the Southern railroad workers. These men would perform monotonous, back-breaking work for up to 15 hours a day, and at some point, they weren’t thinking anymore – just operating. And if you close your eyes and listen to this song, you can almost be there and see it for yourself.
When I was researching for this post, I found a quote from Leadbelly, explaining the unique HA! sounds in the song. “Every time the men say, “HA!” the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing.”
The Midnight Special was an old folk song, and Leadbelly made it famous. There was also a train that could be heard from Sugar Land Prison every night that was commonly known as The Midnight Special. Leadbelly recorded his version of the song shortly after being released. Everyone from Bobby Darin to Nirvana has covered it, and even though there are some good versions, no one has ever come close to recapturing his magic.
There are several versions of the song out there, most popularly with a quartet supporting him, but (my opinion) he was at his best when he was solo. It took some digging but here it is, with a sweet picture of him with his wife, Martha Promise Ledbetter, circa 1935.