Lead Belly

Some guys just can’t stay out of trouble.  In 1998, Texas Governor George W. Bush revoked the 1925 pardon granted Huddie Ledbetter by Governor Pat Neff.  The reason? “It [the pardon] sent the wrong message to school children, criminals, and victims of crime in Texas.” (At the time of his pardon’s revocation, Ledbetter had been dead nearly half a century.)

Odds are the number of `at risk youth’ looking to a folk singing felon as role model in 1998 was nil, but Bush’s gesture was an unintended tribute to an `outlaw’ artist’s enduring power.  Lead Belly is a mythic figure in American music.  Though largely forgotten, he resurfaces briefly every couple of decades, like some cultural coelacanth, to inspire awe among those who catch a fleeting glimpse.

His influence was greatest late in his life and in the years immediately after his death.  “Goodnight Irene,” popularized by Lead Belly on radio in the 1940s, became a national hit when the Weavers covered it in 1950.  Post-Blitz kids in Britain took a shine to Lead Belly’s songs: Lonnie Donegan made a `skiffle’ hit of “Rock Island Line,” and a young Johnny Cash covered it for country fans in 1957.

The Folkways label kept many of Lead Belly’s songs circulating on Lp through the Sixties; Ry Cooder and others who’d grown up with those albums continued to rework Lead Belly songs in the Seventies.  A Gordon Parks-directed biopic, Leadbelly, hit screens in 1976.  Columbia Records released Folkways: a Vision Shared: a Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, featuring revisions of their music by such then-hot acts as U2 and Bruce Springsteen, in 1988.  (It won a Grammy.)  A major biography, The Life & Legend of Leadbelly by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, was published in 1992.  But Lead Belly’s been pretty quiet in the 21st century—at least till now.

Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection is a staggering celebration of the man and his music comprised of 5 CDs offering 108 songs gleaned from recordings spanning his 1934 field recordings through the `last sessions’ taped before his 1949 death.  Presented as a hardbound coffee table book, 140 pages tell the story of Lead Belly’s life and cultural impact, the text leavened with striking photos.

It’s a stunning artifact and tribute to`the king of the 12-string guitar,’ one of the great exemplars of the Songster tradition which embraced and personalized music from a range of folk traditions (and the occasional pop tune).  Blues, work songs, play party songs’ for kids, weepers, spirituals, ballads, and the rumblings of what would become rock `n roll are all onboard.  There’s a vital power stirring through Lead Belly’s music, still inspiring and even a touch dangerous, as that revoked pardon bore witness.

About Mark Humphrey

Join Mark Humphrey the 4th Saturday of most months for a mix of music on KPFK’s Roots Music & Beyond, Saturdays 6-8 a.m. 90.7 fm. The show is archived for two weeks after broadcast at KPFK’s website.

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