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Leadbelly's (1888-1949) hard life

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Hi Harry,
I know that Leadbelly was first presented to Northern Folk audiences as a Folksinger, but I don't know how helpful or valid the distinction between "bluesman" vs. "songster or folksinger" is. When you think about it, of the early players in the style who were recorded and recorded a decent number of titles (more than two to five as a rough estimate), ones who recorded only blues are a very small minority. Henry Townsend is one of the very few players I can think of who never recorded a Folk or Pop song or any religious material (though "Jack of Diamonds/Georgia Rub" certainly had folk origins). Based on what they did record, I think you'd have to consider both Charlie Patton and Lemon Jefferson songsters. And the musicians who did record material other than blues were no less convincing when singing and playing blues than were players who only recorded blues. So if the idea is that a songster's blues are necessarily less "blue" than those played by someone who only played blues, I don't think the music itself supports that notion.
All best,

I think that Leadbelly, as a working musician in the first half of the 20th century, played whatever his audience at the time wanted.  We have a skewed picture of most "blues" players repertoire, because they played whatever their record company wanted them to play.  For most of the musicians that we listen to today, the record companies didn't want to hear their version of The Beer Barrel Polka, or O Sole Mio, or Red Sails In The Sunset, or She'll Be Comin' 'Round The Mountain, they wanted blues.  So that's what we have on record.  For musicians who were discovered by white audiences in the 1940s and 1950s (Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White), audiences wanted "folk music", and that's what the performers gave them.  For the McCoy brothers, playing for gangsters in Chicago, the audiences wanted Italian songs, and that's what they got.  Lonnie Johnson always wanted to play pop music, but the record companies and his rediscovery audience wanted blues, so that's what he played. 

So yes, a lot of our heroes really preferred playing the blues, but when it comes right down to it, they played whatever would pay the rent.

Hi all,
It's worth noting that for much of its history, Blues was itself Pop music of a sort, just as are and have been Doo-Wop, Soul, and Hip-Hop. It's only in the relatively recent past, when the original audience for Blues has died off or moved on to other musical interests and tastes that it has become a sort of esoteric, specialty-audience music. To the extent that it survives, it survives mostly for people who play it. Like Jazz, it's a music in search of an audience in the present-day world.
All best,


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