An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
16 September, 2010
"Packin' Trunk" - Lead Belly
Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Ten: "Packin' Trunk" performed by Lead Belly. Recorded in New York on January 23, 1935. Original issue Banner Ba-33359 16685-1.
Huddie William "Lead Belly" Ledbetter was born on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, likely in 1888. His tombstone lists his birth year as 1889, but two census records (1910 and 1930) both give his birth date as 1888. His birthday is often listed as January 20th, however January 21st and 29th are also cited. His 1942 draft registration lists his birth date as January 23, 1889.
Whenever he was born, Ledbetter born to Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter, who were married shortly after his birth. When Ledbetter was five, his family moved to Leigh, Texas.
By 1903, Ledbetter was a working musician, performing primarily in the red light district of Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1908, he married fifteen year old Aletha "Lethe" Henderson. Around the time of his marriage, Ledbetter was reportedly given his first instrument, an accordion. This is a confusing bit of information. Does this mean that up until this point, Ledbetter had played only borrowed instruments? In 1912, inspired by the sinking of the Titanic, Ledbetter wrote his first song. Ledbetter's "Titanic" was also the first song he played on the 12-string guitar, reportedly picked up in Dallas while performing with Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Ledbetter had occasional trouble with the law and served several terms in prison. He was jailed in 1915 and again in 1918, this time for killing a relative of his named Will Stafford. He was sentenced to seven to thirty-five years at the Imperial Farm in Sugarland, Texas. After serving the minimum seven years, Ledbetter was pardoned and released in 1925. Ledbetter later claimed that he had been released because of a song he had written to Governor Pat Morris Neff pleading for his freedom. Prison records, however, indicate that Ledbetter was released because he had served his minimum sentence and because of his good behavior as an inmate.
By 1930, Ledbetter was back in prison, this time in Louisiana, for attempted homicide. He was serving time in Angola State Prison when, in 1933, he met Folklorist John Lomax and his 18-year-old son and assistant, Alan. Lomax was impressed by Ledbetter's musical ability and made hundreds of recordings of him between 1933 and 1934. In 1934, Ledbetter was released, again claiming that a song he had sent to the Governor (this time Louisiana's Oscar K. Allen), along with John Lomax's personal appeal, had resulted in his freedom. Allen denied that this had been the case, and stated that Ledbetter's early release had been due to good behavior and the fact that he had served his minimum sentence. Nevertheless, the legend that Ledbetter had twice sung his way out of prison quickly took hold on the popular imagination.
Once free, Ledbetter began working as Lomax's chauffeur, driving the song collector all over the South, and assisting him in his search for folk songs. By 1935, the story of the "singing convict" reached the press and Ledbetter became the subject of newspaper articles and newsreels. Soon after, Ledbetter made his first professional recordings, including this recording of "Packin' Trunk." Ledbetter performed exclusively under the nickname "Lead Belly," a name he had likely picked up in prison (although the stories behind the name vary).
Lead Belly began accompanying John Lomax on his lectures, culminating in a famed appearance at Harvard University. Following that lecture, tensions between Lomax and Lead Belly led to the dissolution of their partnership, their friendship, and to Lead Belly's successful lawsuit against Lomax. Following the resolution of his lawsuit, Lead Belly traveled to New York in order to pursue a musical career. However, he failed to excite interest among black audiences. Instead, Lead Belly was adopted by white intellectuals, particularly leftists, who promoted Lead Belly as an authentic voice of the common man.
By 1939, Lead Belly was back in prison for stabbing a man in a fight. He was rescued by Alan Lomax, now 24, who dropped out of graduate school to manage Lead Belly's career. Under Lomax's guidance, Lead Belly joined the ranks of the burgeoning folk music scene that was emerging during he 1940s. He befriended such figures as Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Lead Belly recorded for Moe Asch's Folkways records (which would release the Anthology a few years later), for the Library of Congress, and for Capitol Records and RCA. Lead Belly also toured parts of Europe and performed regularly on the radio. In 1949, Lead Belly was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) and died later that same year.
"Packin' Trunk" is one of Lead Belly's earliest commerical recordings. It is a dynamic performance, featuring Lead Belly's mastery of the 12-string guitar, an instrument that became closely identified with him. The 12-string guitar features six courses of two strings each. These courses are tuned an octave apart (the bass strings) or in unison (the treble strings). The sympathetic vibration of the strings produces a ringing or chiming sound. Other guitarists who used 12-string guitars include Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (producing the group's signature sound), George Harrison, Slash, Peter Buck, and Johnny Marr.
This song was made about a man and a woman. This man he married a woman, she didn’t want him. But she married him anyhow. For the money that he had. And she thought that she got every dollar that he had. But she was mistaken. But she got him pretty well bent. He sat there with his head hung down. She walked by and she said: "Daddy", she said, "what’s the matter with you?" He looked at her and here’s what he said to her:
"I’m sitting down here wondering, would a matchbox hold my clothes. I’m sitting down here wondering, would a matchbox hold my clothes. I’m sitting down here wondering, would a matchbox hold my clothes."
She asked him, she said: "Papa," she said, "What’s the matter with you?"
"I don’t want to be bothered with no suitcase on my road. I don’t want to be bothered with no suitcase on my road. I don’t want to be bothered with no suitcase on my road."
He said: "I’m going to see my friend, and see what he would do when his wife’s packing up her trunk."
"Now what would you do when your baby picking up her trunk? What would you do when your baby picking up her trunk? Now what would you do when your baby picking up her trunk?"
He looked at him and here’s what he told him:
"You get half a gallon of whiskey, you get on your big drunk. You get half a gallon of whiskey, you get on your big drunk. You get half a gallon of whiskey, you get on your big drunk."
She said: "Ghost, go and play the piano a piece for me a little piece." This Ghost jumped down and commenced playing the piano.
While Lead Belly became best known as a "folk" musician, "Packin' Trunk" is solidly in the blues idiom. It is (as Lead Belly declares in the opening) "a song about a man and a woman." It is a song about heartbreak, and it contains an image that would become known the world over. The first sung chorus contains the image of a matchbox. Lead Belly had likely borrowed the image from Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had used the image in his own "Matchbox Blues," recorded in 1927.
I'm settin' here wonderin' would a matchbox hold my clothes. I'm settin' here wonderin' would a matchbox hold my clothes. I ain't got so many matches but I got so far to go.
Blues scholars agree that Jefferson had, in turn, taken the image from tradition usage. Indeed, Ma Rainey had mentioned a matchbox in her 1923 recording, "Lost Wandering Blues." I'm leaving this morning, with my clothes in my hand. I won't stop to wandering, till I find my man. I'm sitting here wondering', will a matchbox hold my clothes. I've got a sun to beat, I'll be farther down the road.
After Lead Belly used the image in "Packin' Trunk," he went on to record his own version of "Match Box Blues." Carl Perkins would make the image the centerpiece of his 1956 Sun recording, "Matchbox," which would be later covered by the Beatles on their Long Tall Sally EP.
Well I'm sitting here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes. Yeah I'm sitting here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes. I ain't got no matches, but I got a long way to go.
In the meantime, Billie Holiday had picked the matchbox image up in "Billie's Blues," a song Holiday had co-written in 1936 and recorded several times in later years.
My man wouldn't give me no breakfast. Wouldn't give me no dinner. Fought about my supper and put me outdoors. Had the nerve to lay a match box on my clothes. I didn't have so many, But I had a long, long way to go.
So what's the deal with the matchbox? A matchbox is, not surprisingly, a box that holds matches. They seem to have been developed, in their present form, during the late 1890s. Prior to that, people kept their matches in more elaborate metal boxes. The point is that the matchbox is very, very small. Far too small to hold anything of any size (such as a person's belongings). If a person is sitting and wondering if a matchbox would hold his clothes, he probably doesn't have much of anything of value to take with him.
"Packin' Trunk" is notable for Lead Belly's declamatory style. He speaks (or rather shouts) the song's narrative in between the sung verses. It is also notable for Lead Belly's slide technique, and for the novel use of the 12-string guitar (it's chiming is used to imitate a piano in the last verse).
"Packin' Trunk" is the first of four blues recordings in a row.
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Here's an excerpt from the "March of Time" newsreel that made Lead Belly famous. It contains, among other things, a reenactment of Lead Belly recording for John Lomax. If nothing else, it proves that Lead Belly and Lomax were no actors...