When talking about the blues, it’s crucial to note that Huddie Ledbetter, known to the world as Lead Belly, was one of the all-time greats and a founder of the genre.

Michael Siegel notes in “The Roots of Jazz”:

Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the music world as “Lead Belly” was born January 20, 1889, in Mooringsport, Louisiana (near Shreveport). Lead Belly was the only child of Wesley and Sally Ledbetter. Lead Belly first tried his hand at playing music when he was only two years old. As a young man he was introduced to the guitar by his Uncle Terrell Ledbetter and from that moment on he was electrified by the guitar. He mastered that instrument and just about any instrument he laid his hands on. He learned to play the accordion, mandolin and piano. Which gave him a wide knowledge of various musical instruments and rhythm. It has been said that one day Lead Belly witnessed a Mexican guitarist playing the twelve string guitar which struck his interest in mastering the unusual instrument.

After the 8th grade, he quit school and, by the time he was 14 years old, he was a popular musician and singer in the weekend “sukey jumps” and “juke joints.” He later became known as the king of the twelve-string guitar and “Stella” as he affectionately called his guitar became his ticket to life and his freedom. Leadbelly was passionate about his love of music. It was his way of expressing what was written on his heart and soul.

One of his most powerful and poignant tunes, recorded between 1943 and 1944, is known as both “Mother’s Blues” and “Little Children Blues” because it tells the story of little children losing their mother.

On Mother’s Day, and every day, many of us know that feeling.

Lyrics:

Spoken: These blues, little children made about somebody that’s gone away And that’s sad, and that gives you the blues As I went down to the freight depot That train come a-rollin’ by I waved my hand at my mama that I loved

Goin’ down that railroad track She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone And no cryin’ won’t bring her back She’s the only mother that I ever did love

Goin’ down that railroad track I went down to the freight depot And looked up on the sign She’s the only mother that I ever did love, in this world

I was hanging my head and cryin’ Twas fare you well, fare you well And she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone She’s gone down that lonesome railroad, this track

And she left me to weep and sing this song

We don’t often think of Nat King Cole as a blues guy. He’s usually described as a jazz and pop singerlike he is in this entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama:

Nat “King” Cole (1919-1965) was a leading figure in American popular music in the 1940s and 1950s. A jazz pianist, composer, and singer, he was widely beloved for his smooth, silky voice. He was the first African American artist to host his own television program and fought for civil rights in a determined but understated manner. He remains one of Alabama’s most famous sons. Cole was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Yet this rendition of “My Mother Told Me” is clearly a blues song. He recorded it in 1949.

I wonder how many mamas warn their sons like this?

Lyrics:

My mother told me There would be some nights like this

My mother told me To never trust a woman’s kiss

My mother told me That there would be some nights like this

(verse)

She took me on the side And said, “Don’t be no fool

When a woman lips are warm Son, you better play it cool”

Known as “King of the Blues,” B.B. King has some perspective on the old phrase “Nobody could love him but his mama.” James Nadal wrote his bio for All About Jazz:

Born on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi in 1925, Riley B. King would start from very humble beginnings. His family moved around the area, and the young Riley experienced early a life of constant motion. As a youngster he was a farm laborer, but drawn to music, he took up the guitar; he played on street corners, and would sometimes play in as many as four towns a night. In 1946, he hitchhiked to Memphis, to pursue his music career. Memphis was a large musical community where every style of music could be found, a good place for a young man who wanted to play the blues. Riley stayed with his cousin Bukka White, a celebrated bluesman in his own right, who was able to show him first hand the guitar foundations of the blues.

Though he sings that nobody but his mother loves him in the following tune, I’d say he was loved and had a lifelong love affair with Lucille, which is what he named all his guitars.

This live clip of “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother“ was ripped from the “BB King’s Blues Master” instructional DVD, according to the YouTube video notes.

On the jazz side, Sonny Stitt gifted us with two tunes about mothers. Here’s part of his bio, found on his official website:

Sonny Stitt (tenor and alto saxophonist) was born Edward Boatner Jr. on February 2, in 1924 in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. He had a musical background; his father, Edward Boatner, was a baritone singer, composer and college music professor, his brother was a classically trained pianist, and his mother was a piano teacher. Boatner was soon adopted by another family, the Stitts, who gave him his new surname. He later began calling himself “Sonny”.

In 1943, Stitt first met Charlie Parker, and as he often later recalled, the two men found that their styles had an extraordinary similarity that was partly coincidental and not merely due to Stitt’s emulation. Stitt’s improvisations were more melodic/less dissonant than those of Parker. Stitt’s earliest recordings were made in 1945 with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie.

[…]

Stitt played alto saxophone in Billy Eckstine’s big band alongside future bop pioneers Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons from 1945 until 1956, when he started to play tenor saxophone more frequently, in order to avoid being referred to as a Charlie Parker imitator. 

Stitt dedicated this tune to his adopted mother, “Mama Jenny, a lady from India,” and opens with his vocals spelling out the word M-O-T-H-E-R—with a meaning for each letter.

Frankly, Stitt was not a singer. But he was one hell of a sax player—though he’s often overlooked.

Stitt recorded the album “My Mother’s Eyes,” featuring “The Jazz Organ Of Charles Kynard,” in 1963. Here’s the title tune:

Stitt’s album isn’t the only one titled “My Mother’s Eyes.” Jazz singer Etta Jones recorded hers in 1978. 

All About Jazz has Jones’ biography:

She was born in South Carolina, but brought up in Harlem. She entered one of the famous talent contests at the Apollo Theatre as a 15 year old, and although she did not win, she was asked to audition for a job with the big band led by Buddy Johnson, as a temporary replacement for the bandleader’s sister.

[…]

In 1968, at a Washington, D.C. gig, Etta teamed up with tenor saxophonist, Houston Person and his trio. They decided to work together and formed a partnership that lasted over 30 years. She toured Japan with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers in 1970, but after her final date for Prestige in 1965, she did not make another album until 1976, when she cut “Ms Jones To You” for Muse.

Despite rumors, she was never married to Person, according to The New York Times.

This lovely solo piano instrumental from George Cables was dedicated to the mother of his longtime partner, Helen Wray:

Here’s Cables’ bio, from his website:

Born in New York City on November 14, 1944, Cables was classically trained as a youth and when he started at the “Fame” worthy High School of Performing Arts, he admittedly “didn’t know anything about jazz.” But he was soon smitten with the potential for freedom of expression he heard in jazz.

The young Cables was impressed by such keyboardists as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. But, he points out, “I never really listened to pianists when I was coming up. I would probably say I’ve been more influenced by Miles or Trane and their whole bands rather than by any single pianist. The concept of the music is more important than listening to somebody’s chops, somebody’s technique, The Way Miles’ band held together, it was just like magic. You were transported to another world.”

Let’s close today with a quirky tune from bassist Charles Mingus, from his 1961 album “Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.” 

Here’s the song’s intro:

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, you have been such a wonderful audience. We have a special treat in store for you. This is a composition dedicated to all mothers. And it’s titled “All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.” Which means if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mother, all the things you could be by now. Which means nothing, you got it? Thank you.”

Ha!

On that Freudian note, I’ll invite you to join me in the comments for more music about mamas, and please post your favorites. Happy Mother’s Day!

PREVIOUS MOTHER’S DAY STORIES:

2023: Black Music Sunday: A musical tribute to many different types of moms

Featuring Dianne Reeves, Miriam Makeba, Tupac Shakur, and Peter Tosh

2022: Black Music Sunday: Celebrating our mamas, grandmas, and aunties with music

Featuring Bill Withers, Dianne Reeves, Gregory Porter, Ben Harper, and the Blind Boys of Alabama

2021: A Sunday soul serenade for Mama’s Day

Featuring Ray Charles, Kirk Franklin, The Spinners, the Intruders, and Earth, Wind & Fire



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