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Top 5 Leadbelly Covers

Lead Belly
Folkways
Today (Jan. 20) likely is the 124th anniversary of the birth of legendary blues guitarist Huddie William Ledbetter — or Lead Belly, as he was widely known (his actual birth date is unconfirmed). Discovered by folklorists John Lomax and Alan Lomax in 1933 while he was serving time for attempted murder at a prison in Louisiana, Lead Belly was famously released early after the Lomaxes brought a petition to the state's governor along with a recording of his signature song, 'Goodnight Irene.' From there he gained widespread fame (but little fortune), moving to New York and recording several records of folk and blues tunes — both traditional songs with his own arrangements and his own original tunes — for RCA, Capitol Records and the Library of Congress. Lead Belly's versions of both became so popular, especially among fellow musicians, that even covers of the traditional folk tunes he played are frequently credited to him. They've been covered by everyone from Tom Petty to the Greateful Dead, but the following five stand out from the rest.


Beach Boys Cottonfields
5

The Beach Boys

'Cottonfields'
 
 

Originally recorded for the Beach Boys' 1969 album '20/20,' Al Jardine did not like Brian Wilson's arrangement and convinced the band to re-rerecord the Lead Belly original a year later in a country-rock style. The new version, which turned out to be the final single the band released on Capitol Records, would also become their biggest international hit, landing in the Top 20 in a dozen countries.

 
Tom Waits Orphans
4

Tom Waits

'Goodnight, Irene'
 
 

Although considered a traditional folk standard and thus its original authorship unknown, Lead Belly's arrangement of the tune became the popular standard, and thus many covers attribute authorship to him. Waits' version, included on his 2006 release 'Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards,' is typically eccentric, but still carries the emotional weight of someone trying to petition his way out of a murder rap.

 
Nirvana Unplugged
3

Nirvana

'Where Did You Sleep Last Night'
 
 

Any list of Lead Belly songs would be incomplete without this take, which was the grand finale of Nirvana's 1993 'MTV Unplugged' appearance. Another traditional most frequently credited to Lead Belly and his arrangement, the tune also goes by the name 'In the Pines.' Late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain's chilling solo version for 'Unplugged' is widely considered one of the finest performances of his tragically short career.

 
Led Zeppelin III
2

Led Zeppelin

'Gallows Pole'
 
 

A traditional folk tune about a condemned maiden pleading for someone to bribe her freedom from an execution, Lead Belly first popularized it in the 20th century with a 1939 recording under the title 'The Gallis Pole.' But it's Led Zeppelin's take that's most famous, and they neglected to give him even a mention in the liner notes, simply crediting it to "Traditional: Arranged by [Robert] Plant and [Jimmy] Page." Also unlike most versions, the condemned woman in Zeppelin's dies in the end.

 
Creedence Clearwater Revival Willy and the Poor Boys
1

Creedence Clearwater Revival

'Midnight Special'
 
 

Another traditional popularized by Leadbelly, Creedence bring a laid-back Southern rock vibe to the tune, which appeared on their 1969 album 'Willy and the Poor Boys.' When Lead Belly first recorded it while a prisoner in Louisiana, the Lomaxes mistakenly credited the song to him, although he did insert several new stanzas about a prison break that occurred while he was incarcerated in Texas in the '30s. 'Willy' also features a take on 'Cottonfields,' the Lead Belly original.

 

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