Reviving Lead Belly


How is it that the glory that was the great folk and blues singer known as Lead Belly is today reduced to a single feeble listing as an “early influence” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? How is it that no one since Gordon Parks, in his ill-fated 1976 effort, has tried to capture for the big screen the remarkable tale of the white-haired, barrel-chested black man from the Louisiana swamps who became the self-taught master of the 12-string guitar, an instrument as resonant and deep as his impossibly bass voice, producing a sound so beguiling that even in the evil days of the deepest segregation, it charmed not one, but two Southern governors into granting him pardons from the pair of deaths that resulted when men ran into his knife?

Huddie Ledbetter was the given name of that same strange character. His singing and playing so bewitched America’s great folklorists, John and Allen Lomax, that when they heard him play in the summer of 1933 in a prison at Angola, Louisiana—where records show he took 10 lashes for “laziness” and another 15 for “impudence”—they refused to leave without him. They brought him north to New York City, where he captivated adoring audiences that included the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, as well as the scholarly professor at Harvard who whispered in awe: “He’s a demon, Lomax, a demon!”

Anyone whose ears tingled at a young age at the sound of that eerie, double-strung guitar and those rolling, guttural tones knows that there was indeed something demonic about Lead Belly. Even singing “Midnight Special” or his sweet signature tune, “Goodnight Irene”—the one that would have made him some really big money had he not died at the age of 60 in 1949 of Lou Gehrig’s disease while living right here in a tenement at 414 East 10th Street—he sounded spooky and unearthly. “He sang like Kingdom Come,” wrote The New Yorker after Lead Belly took the town by storm in 1935.

That’s one of many articles and photographs compiled in Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, a handsome and hefty book that seeks to revive the legend. The artifacts include handwritten letters, photos by Berenice Abbott and Weegee, and the iconic woodcut that graced the cover of the orange Folkways album that was a mainstay of folk music collections in the 1960s. There are portraits as well of the singer wearing demeaning prison stripes as some promoters demanded, although mostly he’s captured in the formal suit and tie he preferred. All have been lovingly retrieved by Tiny Robinson, Ledbetter’s niece, and John Reynolds, a New York­–based researcher who spent 50 years collecting the detritus of this amazing career.

“I was born the day after he died,” Tom Waits writes in his introduction. “I passed him in the hall.” Others confessing deep Lead Belly debts were Harry Belafonte, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Eric Clapton, and Ry Cooder. “The first time I heard Lead Belly, that was it for me,” said Van Morrison. “He opened the door.” Martin Scor-sese writes of rushing up to Sam Goody’s on 49th Street after hearing Lead Belly sing “See See Rider” on the radio. It was, says Scorsese, a sound that took you “right to the heart of what it is to be human.”

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