One of Kurt Cobain’s greatest apparent pleasures, one of the few he took from his fame, was to cast the torchlight over bands and musicians he adored. It’s possible to think of Cobain as a younger adherent to label-mate Sonic Youth’s dragging up of fellow artists – Shonen Knife, Meat Puppets, Greg Sage and the Wipers, Melvins, The Vaselines; all owe ongoing attention to their association with Cobain. Yet Cobain’s showcasing of his leftfield tastes managed, in one case, to bring an artist back from the dead.
Lead Belly was a virtually forgotten blues artist – rediscovered in the Sixties during the blues revival but as a very minor background figure by comparison to other proponents of the style such as Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. The key blues idol in the eyes of the 60s and 70s rock scene though was Robert Johnson, the man who sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical gifts, a man who left just 29 recorded songs (41 takes.) He was also an early entry to The 27 Club. He was the crucial figure in the blues rival of the late 60s – the central defining blues figure for Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Keith Richards; the guitar cream of the rock scene. In all five cases their focus was Johnson’s mastery of the blues as a vocal and instrumental art – this mattered to four men who prided themselves on their overall musical abilities.
Kurt Cobain’s inspiration took alternative roots and destination. It’s unclear where he first discovered Lead Belly, but Lead Belly is the only blues figure to feature on the well known Top 50 Albums list emphasising his centrality as a figure Cobain admired. With the performance of Where Did You Sleep Last Night – a relatively common Nirvana cover he performed on stage quite a number of times from 1989 onward as well as at The Jury cover sessions – at the MTV Unplugged performance he single-handedly made Lead Belly a name known among rock and pop audiences and gave the defining performance of one of his songs. What’s curious to me is why and how Lead Belly became a figure of significance for Kurt Cobain.
As a first port of call, one other key influence on Nirvana was always the Led Zeppelin connection. Led Zeppelin did in fact perform one of their regular retooling efforts on a Lead Belly song, Gallis Pole, turning into Gallows Pole on Led Zeppelin III. There’s no evidence but it’s an intriguing suggestion, that the name Lead Belly may have been familiar to Kurt Cobain via this route. It also suggests the change of direction; Kurt Cobain was never a bluesman, he was a child of rock, a teen punk, a maturing pop musician. He never shared the Clapton-Hendrix-Beck-Townsend worship of the blues. So, by tying the earliest historical root to his tastes to a musician who had more connection to the band that pushed guitar music away from the blues and toward a separate style, he reemphasised his adherence to that later era.
A further element he didn’t share with those four individuals was guitar worship. Kurt Cobain was endlessly disparaging about his own instrumental abilities and his use of the guitar was rarely about more than accompaniment to the sentiments he wished to express in words. Again, Lead Belly’s more rough style married better to the kind of impressionistic (and not necessarily clean or well tutored) work Kurt Cobain exhibited in the acoustic demos available of him working at home. Unlike Robert Johnson, Lead Belly also saw fit to move away from guitar at times if an alternative instrument suited the desired effect or direction. As a musical urge Lead Belly simply ‘fitted’ Kurt Cobain’s self-taught and punk orientated vision of musicianship. He was rejecting an entire component of the hard rock lineage, that leading back to the four key figures of the late sixties, in favour of the heavier sound of the Seventies. His music may have owed its roots to the blues but it wasn’t a reiteration of them.
Lead Belly also brings with him far greater baggage than Robert Johnson’s mythical demonic linkage. Lead Belly was a quintessential ‘bad man’, a regular jail house presence with one murder, one attempted homicide, one further stabbing all to his name across several decades. While Johnson’s personal biography is a misty affair, Lead Belly’s is fairly well-known and can be read a point around the redemptive power of music; that one can appreciate the work of an individual without loving the individual or their life. For a man like Kurt Cobain, one with serious self-esteem issues and feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame arising from a disturbed childhood and ongoing poverty into his mid-twenties, listening to an artist who made music that lifted him above the mess of his life… It may not share the poetry of the ’27’ but it has a deeper, and positive, fuel.