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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Smithsonian: Lead Belly



MUSIC

Lead Belly, Folk-Music Giant, Has a Smithsonian Moment


By ALAN LIGHTFEB. 20, 2015


Lead Belly, above, in New York, circa 1949, in his final days. CreditRichard S. Blacher/Lead Belly Estate, via Smithsonian Folkways



In 1980, when Bob Dylan was baffling much of his audience by writing and singing gospel songs, he stood on the stage of the Warfield Theater in San Francisco and spoke about the folk singer known as Lead Belly. He explained that Lead Belly had been a prisoner in Texas who was discovered by a musicologist and brought to New York.

“At first, he was just doing prison songs and stuff like that,” Mr. Dylan said. “He’d been out of prison for some time when he decided to do children’s songs, and people said, ‘Oh, why did Lead Belly change?’ Some people liked the old ones. Some people liked the new ones. Some people liked both songs.”

“But he didn’t change,” Mr. Dylan concluded emphatically. “He was the same man.”

Lead Belly, who died in 1949, cast a giant shadow on the music that followed him, directly influencing performers from Mr. Dylan to Kurt Cobain with his versatility, his gravelly voice full of power and emotion, and his pioneering 12-string guitar style. Even his image and marketing, often emphasizing his criminal past, provided a blueprint for the presentation of hip-hop and rock artists decades later.Photo

Lead Belly in the 1930s in Wilton, Conn., where he married Martha Promise.
CreditLead Belly Estate, via Smithsonian Folkways

On Tuesday comes the release of “Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection,” a five-disc set that is the first comprehensive overview of this monumental, sprawling career. The compilation, a follow-up to a 2012 Grammy-winning Woody Guthrie boxed set, includes 108 songs (most taken from the Folkways archives), 16 of them previously unreleased. One of the discs comes from a series of radio shows that Lead Belly made for WNYC in the 1940s, which have seldom been heard since. Mr. Guthrie recommended him for the show, telling the producer that of all the living folk singers he’d ever seen, “Lead Belly is ahead of them all.”

On Monday, “Legend of Lead Belly,” a new documentary that serves as a companion to the collection, will have its premiere on the Smithsonian Channel, and an all-star Lead Belly tribute concert is planned for April 25 at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Born Huddie Ledbetter in the northwest corner of Louisiana in 1888, Lead Belly sang an astonishing range of styles — blues, work songs, pop hits — based on the day’s headlines or on age-old games and chants. Songs associated with Lead Belly, either his own compositions or his recordings of traditional material, have been recorded by vocalists as different stylistically as Frank Sinatra, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tom Waits.

Goodnight, Irene” was a No. 1 hit for the Weavers in 1950, setting in motion much of the folk revival that peaked in the 1960s. Lonnie Donegan’s version of “Rock Island Line” inspired England’s skiffle craze, whence emerged the bands of the British Invasion. Nirvana performed “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” as the final song of its 1993 “Unplugged” show, and Lead Belly’s “Last Sessions” album was the only pre-Beatles record that Kurt Cobain included on a list of his top 50 favorites, scrawled in his journal. A number of Lead Belly’s musical heirs commented on his legacy in email interviews.


“From the blues and beyond, stories of heroes, villains, cowboys, presidents, legendary figures, famous and infamous set to song,” Robert Plant (who recorded “Gallows Pole” with Led Zeppelin) wrote, describing Lead Belly’s music. “Compulsory education for those who seek a place in the world of folk and fable.”

Van Morrison, who has repeatedly invoked the singer’s name as a kind of talisman in his lyrics, wrote: “Lead Belly is still a mighty inspiration. Arguably, more relevant today than ever.”

Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum and a co-producer of the boxed set, noted that Lead Belly was best considered in the tradition of the “songster,” a kind of human jukebox who could play whatever a given audience might want to hear.

“Perhaps more than any other folk artist, his ability to cross genres and musical paths was unparalleled,” he said. “We wanted to select the tracks that not only best told his story but also revealed the landscape from which he worked, and allow new people who are interested to get it in one place.”

Lead Belly’s life was the stuff of melodrama (In 1976, Gordon Parks directed a biopic titled “Leadbelly,” using the alternative spelling of his subject’s name; the movie poster blared “You can’t bury a black legend like Leadbelly!”) He was in and out of prison in his 20s, most notably receiving a 35-year sentence in 1918 for murdering a relative in a fight over a woman. Gov. Pat Morris Neff of Texas, who often brought guests to the prison on Sundays to hear Lead Belly perform, pardoned the singer after he served seven years, but in 1930 Lead Belly was sent to the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana after stabbing a man during a fight, and that was not his last arrest or conviction. In 1933, the musicologists John and Alan Lomax came to Angola as part of their long-term effort to collect folk songs, and they recorded Lead Belly for the first time. When he was released the following year, he was hired by John Lomax, and by 1940 he was living in New York, performing frequently as part of a politically charged folk music scene. “Lead Belly still represents the ‘American dream’— that na├»ve idea we Americans have that anything is possible,” the young blues-rocker Benjamin Booker said. “Sometimes it is.”

Lead Belly, left, born Huddie Ledbetter in Louisiana in 1888, showing off his pioneering 12-string guitar style.CreditWilliam Gottlieb/Library of Congress, via Smithsonian Folkways

The collection’s five discs are organized thematically. The first CD is a kind of Lead Belly’s Greatest Hits, with his best-known and most pivotal songs. The second and third offer a general overview of his work, from play songs to prison work songs to topical titles like “National Defense Blues” and “Hitler Song (Mr. Hitler),” and previously unreleased numbers including “Been So Long (Bellevue Hospital Blues)” and the gospel song “I’m So Glad, I Done Got Over.”

The fourth disc includes the WNYC recordings, among them two complete 15 -minute shows in which he races through a half-dozen songs, offering up a brief introduction or explanation for each. The final disc is taken from the three evenings in 1948 that were Lead Belly’s last sessions before his death from A.L.S., known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the following year. It includes tracks from the “Last Sessions” album as released, but also such remarkable moments as an impromptu duet created by Lead Belly singing along with a 78 r.p.m. record of Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”


“What has always astonished me is that his music is as broad, intricate, and paradoxical as the life he lived,” the singer-songwriter Ben Harper said. The boxed set’s packaging is as extensive as its musical scope, with an oversize 140-page book containing multiple essays; dozens of photographs, many previously unpublished; and reproductions of session sheets, letters, newspaper clips and concert fliers.

“I worry about someone now who cares about the context and history of music,” said Jeff Place, archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a co-producer. “Downloading means missing all of that story, so we wanted to create a book that has CDs with it, rather than the other way around — a museum exhibit in a coffee-table set.”

Despite the tremendous sweep of Lead Belly’s influence, revisiting his story is also a reminder that his image was marketed as a kind of proto-gangster rapper, leaning heavily on the so-called authenticity of his criminal past. He was often asked to perform wearing overalls or even prison stripes. “He was a curiosity when he first came to New York,” Mr. Place said. “He was really presented as a savage character from the swamplands.”

In 1937, Life magazine ran a three-page article with Lead Belly’s name and a racial epithet in the title; it also featured a photo of his fingers playing the guitar with the caption “These hands once killed a man.” A poster promoting a concert at the Apollo Theater, reproduced in the box, leads with the pitch “A Texas jury sentenced him for murder — the Governor pardoned him!”

“Woody Guthrie was the guy from the Dust Bowl who rode the rails, and Lead Belly had that image of the worker, the prisoner, the oppressed black man down South who could share those tales,” Mr. Santelli said. “He realized the value of that image and often would play to it, but underneath that he disliked it. He much preferred to be photographed and to play in a suit.”

“It was a product of the times, not unlike blackface, Aunt Jemima, minstrels, etc.,” Mr. Harper wrote. “Where perpetuating negative black stereotypes was not seen as bad, but simply as good for business. Either way, it simply does not get more authentic than Lead Belly — not in America.”

Having tackled Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, Mr. Place and Mr. Santelli’s next project will be a similar examination of Pete Seeger’s career, completing what Mr. Santelli called “the holy trinity of American folk music.” Yet even within this exalted company, Lead Belly’s legacy feels distinctive, linking multiple strands of American history and tradition, bridging generations to create music that was truly universal. “Everybody have the blues,” Lead Belly says, introducing his recording of “Good Morning Blues” in 1943. “Sometimes they don’t know what it is,” he says.

“What’s the matter?” he continues. “Why, the blues got you. They want to talk to you. You got to tell ’em something.”


A version of this article appears in print on February 22, 2015, on page AR29 of the New York edition with the headline: A Folk-Music Giant’s Long Shadow.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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