Leadbelly's 'Old Man' and the Work Song Tradition
On Dec. 14, 1941, Huddie Ledbetter recorded a song called "Old Man." Ledbetter, a singer best known as Leadbelly, is most widely remembered for "Goodnight Irene," "Midnight Special," and "Rock Island Line." He said "Old Man" was a piece that the waterfront laborers -- the roustabouts -- sang as they loaded the steamboats before making the trip up the Mississippi.
Leadbelly's recording originally appeared on a six-song compilation called Work Songs of the U.S.A., released in spring 1942. The album was not a big seller. An invoice made out to Leadbelly shows 11 copies sold in October and November, with a total of 304 for the entire year. One of those purchasers was a young San Francisco shipwright named Archie Green, who had joined the waterfront union the year before.
The song appealed to Green in part because it represented a work culture that he admired.
"It all came together," Green says. "The music, the singer [and] the style hit me with great strength, and I became interested in the song. I've been interested in it for more than three-quarters of my life. It's a good song."
Leadbelly's theme features a recurrence of lyrical dialogue and free association that is part of the roustabouts' tradition of song. The lyrics often address the relations of workers to bosses, and blacks to whites.
"If you examine the lyrics, you find all sorts of materials," Green says of an earlier song in the same vein, "The Deaf Woman's Courtship." "It's like reading James Joyce's Ulysses, where thousands of images are constantly at play and interact in the author's mind ... If you took all of the roustabout songs as a unit, you would find that roustabouts talked about everything."
Green notes that these songs carried coded messages, both social and political, while roustabouts moved along the gangplanks shouldering their loads of cotton, grain, and tobacco. They took words from tradition, or from the moment at hand, putting old ideas together anew or fitting new thoughts into venerable patterns.
Farther away, but tied by the same kind of answer-back dialogue, lie the frolic songs like Frank Proffitt's "Sourwood Mountain" and "Deaf Woman's Courtship." There, suitors and sweethearts test each other in love just as bosses and laborers test each other in work. All these singers transform toil and desire into art.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.