No, this isn’t a post about the Animals, or Bob Dylan, but rather one exploring the life of Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly), a small book of ours, and some of the people who knew him.

As ever when I’m in search of something to write about for this blog, I went looking on our shelves for something that might grab my attention. This small American publication was the one that succeeded this time around.

The Leadbelly Songbook ed. Moses Asch and Alan Lomax (originally publ. 1962)

leadbelly songbook
The front cover

Of course, I knew the name Lead Belly (this is the generally preferred way of spelling his nickname), but beyond that my knowledge was very sketchy to say the least. When I mentioned to a colleague that I was featuring this artist, his first response was about Lead Belly’s prison record for murder. Next, the reason for his nickname – again concerning violence. When I went looking, a more complex story emerged about Lead Belly and his music. And yes, the book does contain his version of the House of the Rising Sun.

Huddie Ledbetter / Lead Belly (1888 – 1949)

Lead Belly (playing the guitar) at the Stuyvesant Casino, New York in 1946. Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb (Public domain)

Born in the Deep South of rural Louisiana, Lead Belly went on, as the entry in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes it, to live two distinct lives:

first, as a field worker, blues singer, rambling man and prisoner in the rural South; second, as a city-dwelling folksinger, performer and recording artist in the urban North.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to think that the life of an African American farm labourer in Texas and Louisiana at the start of the C20 would be hard. Add to that a description of him as a

man possessed with a hot temper and enormous strength (Hall of Fame again)

it is not perhaps that surprising that Lead Belly ended up being convicted of murder. At this time he was also a promising musician, playing and singing in the red light district of Shreveport, a city in Louisiana. There he absorbed all kinds of differing musical influences, adding them to those already learnt in the field – gospel, folk songs, reels.

As Woody Guthrie put it in his introduction to our book:

He soaked in the sweet and sour sounds, the bitter and the sugary, foaming and bubbling notes, chords, and voices that sung by ear.

Prison on this occasion was a farm. Although it might sound faintly bucolic, it was probably closer to forced labour. He was released after serving a minimum sentence, or because the governor liked his music so much – take your pick as to which one you believe. Lead Belly was back in prison some years later, this time on a charge of attempted murder, and it was here he came into contact with Alan Lomax, one of the two editors of our book.

Alan Lomax and Lead Belly

This YouTube post from the Huntley Archives shows Lead Belly performing Goodnight, Irene while John Lomax (Alan’s father) records him at the Angola State Prison in the 1930s. Both Lomaxes were folklorists, and avid collectors of live folk music and blues performances in the field. Alan combined that love with a radical political outlook, particularly something he described as ‘cultural equity’, or as the website currently puts it:

Inspired by the example set by Alan Lomax, our mission is to stimulate cultural equity through preservation, research, and dissemination of the world’s traditional music, and to reconnect people and communities with their creative heritage.

Alan Lomax performing in the 1940s. Public domain image.

Despite an acrimonious dispute over a contract with Lomax’s father in the 1930s after his second release from prison, Lead Belly and Alan worked together in the early 1940s on the US radio show, Back where you come from. The show didn’t last long as it didn’t gain a commercial sponsor.

Moses Asch and Lead Belly

Later in the 1940s, Lead Belly was recorded singing Goodnight, Irene for Asch’s Folkways Records – the song’s first LP recording. Asch wrote the foreword for our book and some passages are worth quoting. First concerning Lead Belly’s appearance and demeanour:

The image best remembered was the face that expressed his charm and affability, or the one of bitterness and protest, or that of warmth and love. … My first impression … was his overall aristocratic appearance and demeanor: his hand-made alligator shoes, beautiful wood cane, gray pin-striped suit, his silver-white cropped hair. Even in his most desperate financial days this was the way I saw him.

The final quote from the foreword challenges our perception of Lead Belly. Yes, he undoubtedly led a violent existence at times and served two prison sentences, but that was only one element of a complex man. So here to end, is the Lead Belly who performed at children’s parties:

I [Asch] had the opportunity to see him in action with children. At a playground in New York City’s Village the children took to him like ducks to water. he had them Skipping to my Lou and dancing and singing Little Sally Walker … [Another concert] was jam-packed, children all over the place, frantic parents. But the moment Leadbelly started to play and sing, the audience hushed, the children grouped around him as though it was grandfather singing for them.