'That Blew My Mind': Raiding The Lead Belly Vault
The story of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter reads like a parody of the brutal bluesman biography: Kill a man, go to prison — twice — then appeal for a pardon in a song. According to the legend, Lead Belly's undeniable talent convinced Texas Governor Pat Neff to let him go.
"The states all kinda got ticked off when that story came out," says Jeff Place, an archivist with Smithonian Folkways. "They said no, no — he really got out both times because his time was up."
With a new box set called Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, Place is hoping to set the record straight on that and other aspects of the musician's legacy. He says the musicologist John Lomax really did "discover" Lead Belly in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana — but that Lomax also carefully crafted and exploited Lead Belly's image as a dangerous criminal.
"He took Lead Belly up to the East and to New York to present to a lot of the folklorists and scholars as this sort of primitive savage from Louisiana. You know, the newspapers cried out, "Sweet savage from the swamplands, here to play a few concerts for you between murders,'" Place says. "It was kind of like the guy coming back and presenting King Kong.
"And it gave Lead Belly a career. He probably would not have had a career like that if Lomax hadn't discovered him; he might have stayed in the South and never been known to any of us. But I discovered a letter the family had where he dictated to his niece his feelings about the matter, where he seems to say, 'Look, yeah, I did some bad things, you know? And I paid my time; I did really hard time for this stuff. It's over. Let's put it behind me. I don't want to talk about that anymore.'"
To most listeners, the name Lead Belly evokes blues, spirituals, work songs and the like, but Place says the artist's range was greater: He was fond of busking, and would memorize anything from current pop songs to children's game songs to Hawaiian music and play it in public. He also secured a weekly slot on WNYC in New York.
"Most of the radio stations didn't really like him on the air, 'cause his heavy Lousiana accent was hard to understand and the audience complained. But there was an anthropologist named Henrietta Yurchenco who had a show on WNYC for a few years in the '40s called Folk Songs of America," Place says. "He'd pick a topic and kind of riff for 15 minutes on songs and words, and then play a little snippet of 'Goodnight, Irene,' and that'd be the end of the show."
Through the process of researching the musician's history and helping remaster his work, Place says he discovered things that even the most diehard Lead Belly enthusiasts have likely never heard. One gem that shone especially bright was recorded by producer Frederic Ramsey.
"Ramsey recorded a lot of stuff at his apartment, and this one tape I found is simply the two of them sitting around, listening to Ramsey's record collection and commenting on, "Oh, I like that song,'" Place says. "They're playing Bessie Smith, and Lead Belly starts singing in perfect pitch along with Bessie Smith as a duet. That blew my mind."
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