Thursday, December 2, 2010

A tribute to Hank Williams and Leadbelly: "Hiram & Huddie"

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Author: James G. Carlson

Throughout the times and all the way up to the present the enduring repertoires of early country and blues artists have lived on. In many cases the songs are even more popular today than they were during the lifetimes of those long gone musicians and singer/songwriters, forever marking their rightful places in the history of music and creating legends for humankind to hold on to. That was no doubt the sort of thinking employed by those at Hillgrass Bluebilly Records when they came up with and carried out their two-disc tribute to Hank Williams and Leadbelly, the aptly titled "Hiram & Huddie," which went on to be one of the winners of the 9th annual Independent Music Awards.It's not uncommon to see tribute albums these days, especially for such notable artists, but the main difference between those tribute albums and Hillgrass Bluebilly's "Hiram & Huddie" tribute is the artists chosen to participate. Basically, this particular collection of Hank Williams and Leadbelly songs has been performed and recorded by the who's who of today's roots music crop, including the best blues, alt-country, roots rock, Americana, and folk punk bands and singer/songwriters. Some of those artists are Possessed by Paul James, C.W. Stoneking, Scott H. Biram, Bob Log III, Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, Tom VandenAvond, Soda, and Jawbone.Why is the album titled "Hiram & Huddie"? Well, that's quite simple, really. The proper name given to Hank Williams in its entirety was Hiram King Williams, while Leadbelly's birth name was Huddie William Ledbetter. And though these two individuals came from very different social, ethnic and artistic backgrounds, they both became extremely valuable presences in music history, to say the least. It's as the cover art of the "Hiram & Huddie" tribute album suggests -- the artists existed on different sides of the tracks, as it were.On the Hiram disc, designated as Vol. 1, the songs that stand out most are "Lost Highway" by Scott H. Biram, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" by C.W. Stoneking, "Ramblin' Man" by Soda, and "Settin' the Woods on Fire" by Bob Log III. As far as the Huddie disc, Vol. 2, the standout songs are hands down "Rock Island Line" by Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, "The Gallows Pole" by William Elliot Whitmore, "Ha, Ha, This Way" by Tom VandenAvond, and "Bottle Up and Go" by Jawbone. But the two tracks that really steal the show on both discs are by the same artist, Jon Konrad Wert, otherwise known as Possessed by Paul James, whose versions of "On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain" and "Bourgeois Blues."

Born in a log cabin on September 17, 1923, Hiram King Williams (or Hank Williams, Sr.) spent the start of his life in Mount Olive, Alabama. After Williams' father was hospitalized for paralysis caused by brain aneurysm, his mother raised he and his sister, supporting them as best she could throughout the Great Depression. As a teenager Williams was sent to live with relatives. His aunt taught him to play guitar, while his cousin secretly taught him to drink whiskey. Obviously he took to both. But he knew, even at a young age, that he wanted to be a singer/songwriter. So he played guitar and sang on the steps outside of the WSFA radio station, whose producers quickly noticed his talented and occasionally invited him inside to play on the air. Around that time, he started his band the Drifting Cowboys. In 1941, as America entered World War II struggle, most of Williams' bandmates were drafted, leaving him to deal with a revolving door of replacement players. At that point he went the solo artist route, writing, playing and performing as Hank Williams, only working with the Drifting Cowboys on and off until they quit for good due to Williams' worsening alcoholism, complaining that he drank more than the gigs paid. After two marriages, a couple of children, eleven number one hit songs, and a small handful of family members that followed in his footsteps, Hank Williams did more in his twenty-nine years than most do in an entire lifetime. He died January 1, 1953 in Oak Hill, West Virginia.

Even though his life was a short one, finding his grave at the early age of twenty-nine, and even though he couldn't read or write music to any useful degree, Hank Williams, Sr. left behind some of the most important and memorable country classics of all. The Pulitzer Prize Board said it best when they awarded Williams a posthumous tribute, offering praise that told of his "...craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life." And had it not been for the birth defect that caused Williams the lifelong pain which led to his abuse of alcohol and drugs, ending his life so prematurely...well, we can only imagine how many more amazing things he may have done as a singer/songwriter and just how much further he might have taken country music.

Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly (or Lead Belly), was born sometime in January 1888 (some accounts claim it was January 23, 1889, however) on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. Though they had lived together for several years, Huddie's parents, Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter didn't officially marry until about a month after his birth. At five years of age, the Ledbetter family relocated to Bowie County, Texas. As a teenager, probably at fifteen or sixteen, Leadbelly was already a talented musician and singer, often performing in St. Paul's Bottoms of Shreveport, a seedy red-light district. But it wasn't until he was exposed to the musical influences of Shreveport's Fannin Street, a row of brothels and saloons, that he began to develop his own original style. Despite his talent with the guitar, Leadbelly's first instrument was an accordion given to him by his uncle. Already married in his late teens, Leadbelly was well on his way toward living a normal workaday life; that is, until he left home in his early twenties to find work as a guitarist. More commonly, though, he worked as a laborer. And though he played around at different venues, sometimes sharing the stage with the likes of Blind Lemmon Jefferson, it wasn't until his third prison sentence for attempted homicide (he knifed a white man in a fight) that his talents as a singer/songwriter were discovered by John Lomax. Wanting out of prison, Leadbelly pleaded to John Lomax that he record a song he had written and play it for the governor as an appeal. The song written as petition for his release was the other side of a record with one of his most popular songs later on "Goodnight Irene." Soon after, he was released, though there is still some debate on whether or not the song sent to the governor had anything to do with it. It wasn't the first time that music had helped him get released from prison, as he as incarcerated in Sugar Land near Houston, Texas, for killing a relative in a fight over a woman. While there he composed a song for the governor as a petition for his release, appealing to his strong religious beliefs. Despite write-ups in Time Magazine and other popular press rags, Leadbelly achieved a fair level of fame, but fortune, sadly, was not to follow. He struggled financially for almost all of his career, earning far more money from touring than from record sales. Leadbelly died December 6, 1949 in New York City.Leadbelly has lived on through the years in his recordings, some of them through Library of Congress and Smithsonian Folkways, re-discovered by generation after generation, and appreciated as the masterful and innovative songsmith he truly was.According to Keith at Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, the label is planning a Johnny Cash tribute for next year. That is one that I am very much looking forward to. I would venture a guess that many others would be excited about that as well. And all I can say to the folks at Hillgrass Bluebilly, otherwise referred to as the Dirtyfoot Family, is, "Bravo"...and, "keep up the good work."

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