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Take This Hammer


Lead Belly with Stella (12 string guitar). (Photo: Joe Albert)

Lead Belly, LeadbellyHuddie LedbetterKing of the 12-String Guitar.

This giant in American music history is supposedly the very first singer to address the “race” issue (in song) under his own name. The song was The Bourgeois Blues and was written after Lead Belly visited Washington DC to record for the US Library of Congress.

He first recorded it 1938 and it documents his experience of racism in the nation’s capital (and probably most other places).

In 1936 Lawrence Gellert had published his Negro Songs Of Protest which documented hundreds of songs, many speaking to the issues. The singers & composers who taught Gellert the songs insisted on anonymity – primarily to avoid retribution

But Lead Belly spoke out loudly in The Bourgeois Blues.

Home of the Brave, Land of the Free
I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.

Well me and my wife was standing upstairs
I heard the white man say “I don’t want no niggers up there”

Take This Hammer, though has more traditional roots evoking the ghost of the legendary spike-striker John Henry, whose name is synonymous with weilding steel.

Lead Belly added a “whaa” to the end of each line. He told of his reasoning:

Every time the men say “haah”, the hammer falls
The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing.”

Undoubtedly the men he is talking about are his fellow prisoners doing hard labour on the chain gangs. Lead Belly spent a fair bit of his adult life in prison – murder, attempted murder – but he wasn’t limited to prison songs, political songs, & work songs.He was also a great entertainer of children.

In 1971 or 1972 I found this album – Take This Hammer – in my parents’ collection of 12″ vinyls.

Take This Hammer

The album was recorded by Moses Asch and edited by Alan Lomax (Side 1) and Frederic Ramsey Jr (Side 2). A great discovery.

More than any other singer, he demonstrated to a streamlined, city-oriented world that America had a living Folk Music – swamp primitive, angry, freighted with great sorrow and great joy.

The link connecting Take This Hammer Black and Blue is …

They are both work songs, spirited and defiant.

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Badass Of The Week: Leadbellya Leadbelly biography from a different perspective, a good read.

* Official website of the Lead Belly Foundation.

* Lead Belly In New York Town – a post in a blog built by students at NYU, called Researching Greenwich Village History

* Pig River Records – Script of an interview/exchange between Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly – to hear the sound bites that are mentioned you need to copy & past their URLs into your browser.

* Take This Hammer  – YouTube playlist – 7 intepretations from: Big Bill Broonzy, Odetta, Johnny Cash, Lonnie Donegan, The Spencer Davis GroupHarry Manx, & The Notting Hillbillies (who sample it in their Railroad Worksong.)

* Alan Lomax Remembering Lead Belly (6m 27s).

* Lead Belly talking about the blues with Alan Lomax (7m 57s). This includes a performance and explanation of the song The Red Cross Store Blues.

* More Lead Belly talking and singing (with Alan Lomax) Circa 1940 (12m 07s)

* Leadbelly – the 1976 feature film directed by Gordon Parks.

* The Lomax-Lead Belly Chronology – significant dates & events for both.

* The film of Take This Hammer above comes from this – the only film of Leadbelly performing – it includes Pick a Bale of Cotton; Grey Goose; & Take This Hammer.

Destination next?

North:   Black And Blue is that way.
East:     Black Girl  by Long John Baldry
South:  The Gallows Pole by Odetta
West:    Sinking Of The Reuben James by Woody Guthrie

Crossroad 26