Songs with Earlier Histories Than the Hit Version

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Tagged: Lead Belly

Stewball

First recorded by Lead Belly (1940).
Also recorded by Woody Guthrie (1944), Lonnie Donegan (1956), The Weavers (1960), John Herald & The Greenbriar Boys (1961).
Hit version by Peter, Paul & Mary (US #35/MOR #17 1963).

From the wiki: “There are two major but different arrangements of the sporting ballad, generally titled either ‘Skewball’ or ‘Stewball’; the latter spelling is more popular in America. Versions date at least as far back as the 18th century. In most versions of ‘Stewball’ the winning horse triumphs due to the stumbling of the lead horse; ‘Skewball’ wins simply by being the faster horse in the end. The oldest broadside identified with the ballad is dated 1784 and is held by the Harding Collection of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. The song spread to America by 1829 when it was published in a songbook in Hartford. American versions were sung and adapted by slaves in the Southern United States, and have ‘Stewball’ racing in California, Texas, or Kentucky.

Kisses Sweeter Than Wine

Adapted from “It It Wasn’t for Dickey” by Lead Belly (1937).
First recorded by The Weavers (US #19 1951).
Other hit versions by Jimmie Rodgers (US #3 1957), Frankie Vaughn (UK #8 1958).

From the wiki: “‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ is a love song written by The Weavers in 1950, and first recorded by the group in 1951. In his 1993 book Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Pete Seeger described the long genesis of this song. Apparently, Blues singer Lead Belly heard Irish performer Sam Kennedy in Greenwich Village singing the traditional Irish song ‘Drimmin Down’ aka ‘Drimmen Dow’, about a farmer and his dead cow. Lead Belly adapted the tune for his own farmer/cow song ‘If It Wasn’t for Dickey’, which he first recorded in 1937. Seeger liked Lead Belly’s version of the tune, and his chords as well. In 1950, the quartet The Weavers, which Seeger belonged to, had made a hit version of Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight, Irene’, and they were looking for new, similar material.

Midnight Special

First recorded (as “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special”) by Dave Cutrell (1926).
Also recorded (as “The Midnight Special Blues”) by Sam Collins (1927).
Hit versions by Lead Belly (1934), Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper (C&W #4 1959), Paul Evans (US #16/UK #41 1960), Johnny Rivers (US #20/CAN #36/AUS #86 1964).
Also recorded by Harry Belafonte (1962), Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969).

From the wiki: “‘Midnight Special’ was first commercially recorded on the OKeh label in 1926 as ‘Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special’ by Dave ‘Pistol Pete’ Cutrell (a member of McGinty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band). (In March 1929, the band, now named ‘Otto Gray and the Oklahoma Cowboys’, recorded the song again, this time with the traditional title using only the traditional lyrics.) Sam Collins recorded the song commercially in 1927 under the title ‘The Midnight Special Blues’ for Gennett Records. Collins’ version also follows the traditional style but his recording was the first to name the woman in the story, Little Nora, and he was the first singer to refer to the Midnight Special’s ‘ever-living’ light. In 1934 Huddie William ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter recorded a version of the song at Angola Prison for John and Alan Lomax, who mistakenly attributed it to him as the author. Ledbetter recorded at least three versions of the song, including one in 1940 with the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel group.

House of the Rising Sun

First recorded (as “Rising Sun Blues”) by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster (1933).
Also recorded by Woody Guthrie (1941), Lead Belly (1944 |1948), Josh White (1947), Pete Seeger (1958), Andy Griffith (1959), Miriam Makeba (1960).
Hit versions by The Animals (US #1/UK #1 1964), Frijid Pink (US #7/UK #4 1970).

From the wiki: “Like many classic folk ballads, the authorship of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ is uncertain. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads such as The Unfortunate Rake of the 18th century and that English emigrants took the song to America where it was adapted to its later New Orleans setting. Alan Price of The Animals has even claimed that the song was originally a sixteenth-century English folk song about a Soho brothel.

Cotton Fields

Written and first recorded by Lead Belly (1940).
Also recorded by Odetta (1954), Harry Belafonte (1958).
Hit versions by The Highwaymen (US #13 1961), The Beach Boys (UK #5 1970).

From the wiki: “‘Cotton Fields’ was written by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, who made the first recording of the song in 1940. ‘Cotton Fields’ was introduced into the canon of Folk music via its inclusion on the 1954 album release Odetta & Larry which comprised performances by Odetta and accompanist Larry Mohr at the Tin Angel nightclub in San Francisco. The song’s profile was boosted via its recording by Harry Belafonte first on his 1958 albums Belafonte Sings the Blues and Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. (Belafonte had learned ‘Cotton Fields’ from Odetta and been singing it in concert as early as 1955.) The song entered Pop culture with the #13 hit recording in 1961 by The Highwaymen. The Beach Boys reached the UK Top 5 with a 1968 recording, released as a single in 1970, of ‘Cotton Fields’.”

Goodnight, Irene

First released by Lead Belly (1933).
Hit version by The Weavers (US #1 1950).

From the wiki: “Lead Belly was singing a version of the song from as early as 1908, which he claimed to have learned from his uncles Terell and Bob. An 1886 song by Gussie L. Davis has several lyrical and structural similarities to the latter song, however no information on its melody has survived. Some evidence suggests the 1886 song was itself based on an even earlier song which has not survived. Regardless of where he first heard it, by the 1930s Lead Belly had made the song his own, modifying the rhythm and rewriting most of the verses.

Rock Island Line

First recorded at Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas, by John Lomax (1934).
Popular versions by Lead Belly (1937), Lonnie Donegan (UK #8 1955).
Also recorded by Bobby Darin & The Jaybirds (1956), The Beatles (1969, released as a bootleg 1994).

From the wiki: “‘Rock Island Line’ is an American Blues/Folk song first recorded by John Lomax in 1934 as sung by inmates in an Arkansas State Prison, and later popularized by Lead Belly. Many versions have been recorded by other artists, most significantly the world-wide hit version in the mid-1950s by Lonnie Donegan. The song is ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.

“Donegan’s recording, released as a single in late 1955, signaled the start of the UK ‘skiffle’ craze. This recording featured Donegan, Chris Barber on double bass and washboard player (Beryl Bryden), but as it was part of a Chris Barber’s Jazz Band session for Decca Records, Donegan received no royalties from Decca for record sales, beyond his original session fee.

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