Jeff Place '79 and Robert Santelli produce a tribute to guitarist and singer Lead Belly.
In the tradition of their Grammy award-winning box set on Woody Guthrie, Jeff Place ’79, archivist and producer for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and Robert Santelli, director of the Grammy Museum, offer a comprehensive tribute to a titan of American music, the guitarist and singer Lead Belly (Huddie Ludbetter, 1888-1949). The collection, called Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, includes five music CDs, essays, a discography and rare photos and memorabilia, much of it published here for the first time.
Famous for his distinctive sound on the 12-string guitar, Lead Belly was a “walking encyclopedia of Southern music,” remarked ethnomusicologist and folklorist Henrietta Yurchenco in 1940. He sang the sacred and secular African-American music of his rural Louisiana youth, along with the songs of cowboys and sailors, prison songs and children’s music. Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Hot Tuna and Tom Waits are only some of the artists who have drawn from this wellspring.
Place’s essay explores the crucial figures and technological developments that affected Lead Belly’s career, beyond the artist’s troubled early life, including time in prison for murder. A key moment, his meeting folklorist John Lomax, is now legendary: Lomax traveled the South with his son Alan to document the music of African-American prisoners, and in Lead Belly, they met their holy grail. Famously, they presented him to audiences in New York City as a violent primitive. Quite a different relationship was forged with record producer Moses Asch (later the founder of Folkways). Asch saw his role as the conduit for artists to express themselves in their own way, an approach that yielded mutual respect and great studio sessions.
Among my favorites in the collection is the majestic “Fannin Street (Mr. Tom Hughes’ Town),” with its profound opening bass run and its tale about trouble in a tough district. “Alabama Bound” is a revelation, a pulsating, swingy ensemble effort with Lead Belly’s close friends Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.
Place provides the most learned and interesting song notes of anyone writing today. For example, the notes for “If It Wasn’t for Dicky,” recorded in 1937, unpack Lead Belly’s songwriting process and the flow and exchange of musical ideas across artists. Having heard an Irish singer do a song about a beloved cow (sung in Irish), he entirely rewrote the song to make it his own; eventually, his tune acquired new lyrics and became the Weavers’ smash hit “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
Lead Belly will surely delight anyone with an interest in American music history, particularly fans of folk and blues music.
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