It wasn’t written, it was a real song that’s just made up.
That was Lead Belly in Last Sessions talking about the St. Louis Song that was around well before W.C. Handy recorded St. Louis Blues. That’s right – before it was written down it was a real song. If that’s true, we have been accustomed to something other than real songs. Our songs are a certain length, always with the same words, with each flourish in the same place every time we hear it. But real songs? They might be done a little different each time you hear them, and they might be “fixed up” a bit by adding a stanza you hadn’t heard before, or at least not in that particular song. The best blues may be precisely planned, but it has the feel of spontaneity. That note you just heard? That might be the only time it was ever played just that way.
And that’s the feel you get from Last Sessions, recorded by the Lomaxes in Lead Belly’s living room. It’s just Lead Belly, his twelve string guitar, some thigh-slapping and his request for “a Coca-Cola, not a Pepsi-Cola.” The playlist ranges from folk to blues to spirituals and few race-equality songs.
Here you’ll get to nearly meet Lead Belly. He had, ahem, been previously convicted of murder and had a scar from one side of his neck to the other. But he’s soft-spoken, endearing and enthusiastic as he explains regional variations of songs, works in a reference to Sneaky Pete Wine, and prefaces a song with “these are the holy rollers singing this now…” (He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word).
One of the appeals of early Blues is the sense that they are so close to the time of unrecorded music. They seem close to something that organically sprang out of a culture which itself was connected to yet earlier cultures. So history is an added interest. Battling the boll weevil, surviving floods, and making all telephone calls to “central” are all there in Last Sessions. So are stories of Lead Belly touring with Blind Lemon Jefferson and his attempts to convince city women that he was also from the city. (Hint: don’t add sugar to your beer.)
A good sample of what you get here is the conversation around the classic Careless Love. No, Mr. Lomax, it isn’t a mountain pregnancy song. It was an old song when Lead Belly was young and Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first to record it. The white folks would sing “love, careless love,” but the blacks would sing “see what careless love has done” and it referred to loving someone who doesn’t love you back – you might as well just throw that kind of love in the East River. That’s all going by Lead Belly’s account, anyway, and I’m not sure Lead Belly was as much a stickler for historical accuracy as Lomax wanted him to be. Still, it’s fun history, anyway.
A quick aside to all you Presbyterian Sabbatarians: a blues responsive reading.
“Ain’t it a shame to go fishin’ on a Sunday?”
“Yea, ain’t it a shame.”
Anyway, one of my favorites is Lead Belly’s song against multi-tasking. See, “your mind is running, you’ve got to relax once in a while.” So many people get in a car but they’re “not looking where they’re going.” As for Lead Belly, “I’ve never even run over a chicken, I ain’t run over nothing.” Then the song tells us:
When you’re driving in an automobile,
Oh, keep your eyes out through that windshield,
That’s the time you got to relax your mind.
Once was a man crossin’ a railroad track,
Oh, boy, and he forgot to relax,
That’s one time he shoulda relaxed his mind.
Relax your mind, relax your mind,
Oh, make you feel just as fine as wine,
Sometime you gotta relax your mind.
Good stuff. Lead Belly’s Last Sessions