5 Most Famous Lead Belly Covers

Nirvana, Tom Waits, Led Zeppelin and more.

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5 Most Famous Lead Belly Covers
Lead Belly was an American folk and blues musician notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the folk standards he introduced. His songs covered a wide range, including gospel music, folk songs, and blues about women, liquor, prison life, and racism.
'No Lead Belly, no Beatles,' George Harrison once said.

He is considered to be one of the great musical influences of the 20th century. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

‘Gallows Pole’

Cover by: Led Zeppelin

'The Maid Freed from the Gallows' is an old folk song about a condemned maiden pleading for someone to buy her freedom from the executioner. The ballad exists in a number of folkloric variants, from many different countries, various titles, and has been remade many times.

It was recorded in 1939 by Lead Belly, as 'The Gallis Pole.' His haunting, shrill tenor delivers the lyrical counterpoint, and his story is punctuated with spoken-word, as he 'interrupts his song to discourse on its theme.'

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The song was covered in 1970 by English rock band Led Zeppelin, on the album Led Zeppelin III. Led Zeppelin's take on the song became more famous than the Lead Belly one. They neglected to give him even a mention in the liner notes, simply crediting it to 'Traditional: Arranged by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.'

The band would perform the song a few times live during Led Zeppelin concerts in 1971. Plant would sometimes also include lyrics in live performances of the Led Zeppelin song "Trampled Under Foot" in 1975.

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‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’

Cover by: Nirvana

'In the Pines,' also known as 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' and 'Black Girl,' is a traditional American folk song which dates back to at least the 1870s, and is believed to be Southern Appalachian in origin.

Traditionally, the song is most often associated with Lead Belly, who recorded several versions in the '40s. Lead Belly, recorded over half-a-dozen versions between 1944 and 1948, most often under the title, 'Black Girl' or 'Black Gal.' His first rendition, for Musicraft Records in New York City in February 1944, is arguably his most famous. It is titled as 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night.'

According to the American folklorist Alan Lomax, Lead Belly learned the song from someone's interpretation of the 1917 version compiled by Cecil Sharp, and by the 1925 phonograph recording.

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The cover for this song was the grand finale of Nirvana's 1993 'MTV Unplugged' appearance. Kurt Cobain was introduced to the song by fellow Seattle musician Mark Lanegan. Like Lanegan, Cobain usually screamed its final verse.

Neil Young described Cobain's vocals during the final screamed verse as 'Unearthly, like a werewolf, unbelievable.'

It is likely that Cobain referenced Lead Belly's 1944 Musicraft version for his interpretation of the song because Lanegan owned an original 78 rpm record of this version, and it is the one that Cobain's version most closely resembles in terms of lyrics, form, and title.

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'Goodnight, Irene'

Cover by: Tom Waits

This song is a 20th-century American folk tune, first recorded by Lead Belly in 1933. Lead Belly's arrangement of the tune became the popular standard, and thus many covers attribute authorship to him. Because of this song, the bluesman was released from prison by the Governor of Louisiana at the request of the collector John Lomax.

The lyrics tell of the singer's troubled past with his love, Irene, and express his sadness and frustration. Several verses refer explicitly to suicidal fantasies, most famously in the line 'sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown.'

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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.

In 1950, one year after Leadbelly died, this was a #1 hit for the folk group The Weavers. Other artists to record the song include Ry Cooder, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, The Chieftains, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc.

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'Cotton Fields'

Cover by: The Beach Boys

This song was written by Lead Belly, who made the first recording of the song in 1940. Fun fact: The original Lead Belly lyrics state that the fields are 'down in Louisiana, just ten miles from Texarkana.' Later versions say the fields are 'down in Louisiana, just about a mile from Texarkana.' Both are geographically impossible, as Texarkana is about 30 miles north of the Arkansas–Louisiana border.
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American rock band the Beach Boys recorded 'Cotton Fields' on November 18, 1968. The track with Al Jardine on lead vocals debuted on the band's 1969 album '20/20.' 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.
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'Midnight Special'

Cover by: Creedence Clearwater Revival

'Midnight Special' is a traditional folk song thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South. The song is historically performed in the country-blues style from the viewpoint of the prisoner and has been covered by many artists.

In 1934 Lead Belly recorded a version of the song at Angola Prison for John and Alan Lomax, who mistakenly attributed it to him as the author. However, the bluesman, for his Angola session, appears to have inserted several stanzas relating to a 1923 Houston jailbreak into the traditional song. He recorded at least three versions of the song, one with the famous Golden Gate Quartet.

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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.

However, the most famous interpretation of the song was made by the Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969. It was featured on their fourth album 'Willy And The Poorboys' 1969. Since then, the 'Midnight special' has acquired somewhat of a national criminal anthem status.

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22 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Is it pronounced Lead or Lead?
    Gallow's Pole is possibly my favorite Zeppelin song. The Rain Song and Ten Years Gone are probably better...When I think of Led Zeppelin, I think of acoustic Zeppelin, and their version of Gallow's Pole.
    As has been said about other songs, Gallow's Pole isn't by Leadbelly originally, though. The Led Zeppelin arrangement is based on someone else's.
    Nirvana's cover is unbelievable. That screamed final verse is a goosebumps giver.
    What about Mark Lanegan's version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain actually play bass and guitar on that version.
    It's not "neglecting to mention him" he didn't write the song therefore he wasn't credited. That's how song writing credits work only the writer is credited doesn't matter who performed it. 
    Not when the argument is about Tobias Forge firing Nameless Ghouls.  Then it doesn't matter at all...
    Those are a performance royalties matter so completely unrelated. You have songwriting royalties and performance royalties for recording an instrument on the track which are significantly less. Lead Belly didn't write or record anything for Led Zeppelin's version of the song therefore Lead Belly shouldn't be credited for anything on that version.