Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly,” survived a life that included desperate poverty and long stretches in prison to become a renowned blues and folk singer. Discovered by the Lomaxes in the early 1930s in the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana where he was serving time for stabbing a white man in a fight, Lead Belly was released to become the “King of the Twelve-String Guitar,” – the most enduring image of Lead Belly is wielding his large Stella twelve-string.
His last recording session was around one year before his death, when he set down as much of his repertoire as he could, from field hollers, blues, and country & western songs to children’s tunes, ballads, autobiographical pieces, and popular hits of the day. There are some spiritual songs in there too, including the poignant He Never Said a Mumbling Word.
The song refers to the Good Friday story of the crucifixion, drawing attention to the Gospel’s account of Christ’s silence before his accusers when on trial – “They led Him to Pilate’s bar,
Not a word, not a word, not a word… He never said a mumblin’ word.” There’s a sense of destiny in all of this, that Jesus willingly gave himself up to his executioners, because he knew it served a great purpose.
In Lead Belly’s rendition of the song, it clips along, almost jauntily, sung unaccompanied and driven by rhythmic clapping. It scarcely seems to do justice to the subject matter, until half way through the song when Lead Belly sings, “He’s coming back again, He’s coming back again for me.”
The song was recorded again in 1989 by Nirvana, in a version that in some ways is not too dissimilar from Lead Belly’s, but driven now by electric guitar. Somehow, though, the rough, rather discordant guitar strumming and the vocals seems to fit the brutality of Christ’s crucifixion. Interestingly, however, the “He’s coming back again,” is missing from Nirvana’s version.
Maybe the best version of the song comes from the Welcome Wagon in 2014. The slow tempo, the banjo, the strings, the slide guitar and the gently sung lyrics carry the sombreness of the story from “Pilate’s bar” to the cries of “crucify” from the mob to the “nailing to a tree.” No second coming in this version either, the artists clearly wanting to focus the attention on the crucifixion.
In St. John’s version of Christ’s trial before Pilate, Jesus is not entirely silent, albeit his answers were, to Pilate’s ears, rather enigmatic. Eventually, though, Pilate asks, maybe cynically, “What is truth?” and receives no answers. “The answer to Pilate’s question, this answer he so desperately seeks in his confusion and emptiness, is standing right in front of him. The one who was the way, the truth, and the life. Christ did not give an answer, because he himself was the answer.” (In All Things).