Leadbelly - Jean Harlow
SUPER-RAD MEGA-FACTUAL UPDATE: Leadbelly’s family want you to know that even though some people say Leadbelly did all this stuff, maybe he didn’t do all this stuff, and maybe he did the complete opposite of everything you read here, and furthermore that time is a human construct and up might be down. Season accordingly. Also, Maryland and Louisiana aren’t the same place.
Ah, actor week. We had some giggles, didn’t we, interfriends? We laughed, we cried, we coughed politely. But believe me when I tell you that we here at the High Council of Deadly Deathitude saved the best for goddamned last.
Of all the people we’ve written about, Leadbelly is the roughest, toughest, baddassiest motherfucker of the bunch. Keith Moon’s hotel room trashing, John Bonham punching a female journalist in the face because he didn’t like the reviews she wrote, Skip Spence trying to murder his drummer with a fireaxe, Chuck Manson, these pansies are big girl’s blouses compared to Leadbelly, career criminal and, on the side, legend of folk music. By the age of 15, Leadbelly was making a stir in the red-light district near Shreveport, LA, and soon found himself established, living in a house next door to his parents with his (according to the 1910 census, anyway) 15 year-old bride. After siring two children, he skipped town to find his fortune as a guitar player, but instead of finding his fortune, he [pulitzer moment] un-found his mis-reverse-fortune [/pulitzer moment] and found himself working on the chain gang after being busted for packin’ a pistol. But, because this story rules, he made a daring escape from the chain gang. Unfortunately, he was locked up again, after killing a relative in a dispute over a woman. So… back to jail for 7 years (1918 - 1925), during which time he nearly kills another inmate during a knife fight and earns a gruesome scar on his neck. Ultimately, Leadbely wins his release from prison by charming the Governor of Texas and winning over the guards through good behaviour and performing. Aaaaaand back in jail he goes in 1930 for attempted murder (of a white man, no less) in another knife fight, but it’s here that his career truly begins to take flight. While in prison, Leadbelly is happened upon by John and Alan Lomax, a father-and-son team of musicologists, and were it not for this chance encounter, it is highly likely none of us would have ever heard much more from Leadbelly, but the odds are good he would have killed a few more dudes. Luckily for us, and for Leadbelly, the Lomaxes are won over by his songs about devil women, booze and despair, and ultimately not only go on to record dozens and dozens of his songs from within the prison, but also successfully petition for his release from prison. John, the senior Lomax, becomes Leadbelly’s champion and manager, and Life magazine and many newsreels are quick to pick up on the story of the (actual Life magazine article title) Bad Nigger [turned] Good Minstrel. The relationship ultimately sours, Leadbelly sues Lomax, wins, aaaaaaand hey guess fucking what, ends up back in jail in 1939 for assault (yep, knife fight) and is bailed out by Lomax’s son Alan, and really from there never quite takes off, gains some minor notoriety, but sadly doesn’t live to see himself become the legend of folk he remains today. Anyhow, that was a lot of words, but in summary, Leadbelly was fucking tough and this song is about actress Jean Harlow.
Leadbelly could probably fucking kill you with this accordian, but by all means keep smirking, pal.