If you’re a fan of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, or his electrifying performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on MTV Unplugged, this article is for you.
Kurt Cobain was best known as the lead singer and songwriter for the alternative rock band, Nirvana, from 1987 to 1994. His main influences were rock groups like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, punk rock like the Sex Pistols, and alternative rock like the Pixies.
Did you know that besides being influenced by rock music, Cobain was also influenced by blues music? Cobain was influenced, in particular, by the American folk blues artist, Lead Belly.
Who Was Lead Belly?
Lead Belly, aka Huddie Ledbetter, lived from 1888 to 1949. He had a charismatic stage presence, powerful vocals, and specialized in the 12 string guitar, although he was truly a multi-instrumentalist. His repertoire consisted of traditional as well as original songs in a variety of folk genres, including blues.
Leaving home as a teenager to pursue his music, Lead Belly also kept getting into trouble for fighting, which led to him spending time in and out of prison. The silver lining was that during his last stint in prison, he was discovered by the father and son folklorist team, John and Alan Lomax. During the 1930s and 40s, the Lomaxes were traveling the country recording regional folk songs for the Library of Congress. They recorded Lead Belly at Louisiana State Prison in Angola in 1933.
After Lead Belly’s release from prison, he moved to New York City and pursued a national performing and recording career, first managed by John Lomax.
Lead Belly’s Early Influence On Musicians
Some of his more well known songs are “Good Night, Irene”, “Rock Island Line”, and “Midnight Special” (a traditional prison song).
“Good Night Irene” was recorded by the folk group, The Weavers, six months after Lead Belly’s death and became a huge hit. “Rock Island Line” was picked up by British artist, Lonnie Donegan, in the 50s, which started the skiffle craze. This, in turn, influenced a number of British rock and pop artists, such as the members of the Beatles. “Midnight Special” was recorded by the rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969.
Cobain Discovers Lead Belly
So how did Kurt Cobain discover Lead Belly? There are a couple of competing stories, but they have a similar theme. He had read an interview from American author, William S. Burroughs, proclaiming that “These new rock’n’roll kids should just throw away their guitars and listen to something with real soul, like Leadbelly.” Cobain took the hint.
Subsequently, he either purchased some Lead Belly records or was given a Lead Belly record by a friend. He felt especially connected to the songs on the album, “Lead Belly’s Last Sessions”.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
Cobain was so impressed that in 1989, he formed a side project called The Jury with friends from the alt-rock band Screaming Trees. They recorded four songs by Lead Belly including “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”. The song also became a regular addition to Nirvana shows.
In 1994, Cobain played and sang “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” during the MTV Unplugged in New York concert. A definitive performance, this brought the song to the attention of the modern rock and pop audience.
Here’s the original version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” by Lead Belly for comparison. We hoped you enjoyed delving into the history of Kurt Cobain’s blues influence, Lead Belly.