The Legend of Lead Belly Continues to Grow

WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS  Playlist for February 15, 2015

Huddie Ledbetter, best known to the world as Lead Belly, passed away in December 1949, a few short months before the Weavers recording of  his “Goodnight Irene” entered the Billboard best seller chart. The song remained there for 25 weeks and reached #1 on the charts. While the Weavers omitted a few of the controversial verses that Lead Belly sang, the song itself has clouded origins, as do many folk songs, but Lead Belly was singing the song as early as 1908 and his modifications made the song a classic. It also helped contribute to his legend.

Since his passing, a number of myths and misconceptions have circulated about Lead Belly, and this month we have several opportunities to re-examine the music he created and get a glimpse at the man himself via a new documentary film and a career-spanning box set.

Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

On February 24th, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is releasing Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, a 5-CD box set featuring 108 tracks (16 previously unreleased) along with a 140-page large-format book with rare photos of the folk music icon.

While Lead Belly has been the subject of numerous collections, this is the first in-depth collection that covers his entire career. The collection was compiled by Smithsonian Folkways Archivist Jeff Place and Executive Director of the GRAMMY Museum Robert Santelli.

While listening to the collection, I was struck by the clarity of the recordings which enables the listener to truly appreciate the artistry of Lead Belly’s dexterity on his 12-string Stella guitar as well as his powerful voice and commanding presence. Lead Belly’s distinctive Louisiana/Texas accent, a concern for record producers during his lifetime, comes alive in these recordings, a testament to the love and care the producers put forth in their work.  Lead Belly never sounded better, and the listener comes away with a greater appreciation for the artistry of the subject. It is little wonder that Lead Belly’s music influenced so many artists – from the Weavers to the Byrds, the Beatles to Nirvana, Odetta to Frank Sinatra and so many others. Listening to the songs again remind us of just why Lead Belly inspired so many artists who honored his songs, but we still are left with a variety of stories and myths about the man himself.

To coincide with the release of the box set, and as part of their celebration of Black History Month, the Smithsonian Channel will be offering The Legend of Lead Belly, a new documentary that will premiere on the network on Monday February 23 at 8pm. The one hour documentary will tell the story of Lead Belly and his music, sharing rare clips of the legendary folk singer as well as interviews with Van Morrison, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Robbie Krieger of the Doors, members of Lead Belly’s family, and author John Reynolds. John is a Lead Belly historian and with the assistance of Lead Belly’s niece Tiny Robinson, he co-edited the book “Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures.”

Lead Belly’s story takes us from his home in the swamplands of Louisiana, to the prisons of Texas and eventually to the streets of New York City. His rise from a childhood in the post-Civil War South and several stints in prison to a career that made him a musical legend is hard to cover in a single 1 hour documentary, but the feature does offer a unique look at the rare film clips and discussion with contemporary artists about his legacy.

Lead Belly

Portrait in New York, in Lead Belly’s final days

As to the man himself, the documentary primarily features musicians who know the music of Lead Belly through recordings and the stories of others. Those stories become embellished with time, such as the common misconception that Lead Belly was released from prison because the Governor like his singing. Likewise, the influence of John and Alan Lomax, who discovered the singer during a song gathering trip to the prison where Lead Belly was incarcerated, was complex and influenced by the age in which they all lived. It is a difficult task for any film maker to uncover the real story when most of the subjects have passed on, but the strength of the film lies in the music – which will speak to generations yet to come.

In addition to the showings on the Smithsonian Channel, the network has arranged special screenings around the country. Fairleigh Dickinson University, the home of WFDU-FM, will present a screening on Tuesday February 24 at 6:45pm in the Wilson Auditorum on the Hackensack campus of FDU. Following the showing of the documentary there will be a discussion with the film makers and special guests, including John Reynolds. (For more information on the FDU screening, please click HERE.)

The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Lead Belly: A Musical Legacy” featuring a variety of documents and original lyrics as well as Lead Belly’s famed 12-string Stella guitar. The exhibit will run through May 2015. Other events are being planned this year in various cities across the country.

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About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.

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