The Smithsonian Folkways Collection Box Set
Lead Belly, born Huddie Ledbetter in 1889, was incarcerated three times. The first time he was on a chain gang but escaped. In 1918 he was imprisoned because he killed a man in a fight over a woman. He was released in 1925 after writing a song to Pat Morris Neff the Governor of Texas. In 1930 Lead Belly was convicted of attempted homicide and a guest at Louisiana’s Angola Prison. He was discovered and recorded by folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax. He was released in 1934 after writing “Governor O.K. Allen” (a song for the Governor of Louisiana); and after having served most of his sentence.
Lead Belly became a driver for John Lomax. Lomax signed a book deal with his publisher, Macmillan, for a new collection of folk songs. Lead Belly, also known as the king of the twelve string guitar, signed a recording contract and then married his girlfriend Martha Promise. In 1936 Lead Belly appeared at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. In 1940 he appeared as a regular on Lomax’s influential CBS radio show. He sang with Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Lead Belly recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress, and for Moe Asch founder of Folkways Records. He even toured Europe. In 1941 Lead Belly had his own radio show. Unfortunately in 1949 he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and died later that year. He is buried in Mooringsport, Louisiana near his place of birth.
On February 24th, Smithsonian Folkways will release this box set. It is a 12 x 12, 140 page hard covered book with 5 cds containing 108 songs. The book is written by Grammy winning Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place and co-produced by him with Robert Santelli, The Executive Director of the Grammy Museum. The photos are amazing; including one taken in an uptown NYC apartment with Lead Belly, White, Terry, Burl Ives, Alan Lomax, and house guests. His pardon from the Governor, newspaper articles, ledgers, letters, telegrams, album covers and liner notes are also included.
Lead Belly was a songster. Many of these songs were written by him, but he also collected traditional tunes and made them his own. Lead Belly’s songs have become so main stream that when you hear them you don’t even realize where they come from. They are so much a part of our American heritage. His songs have been covered so many times. Songs like Goodnight Irene (The Weavers), Cotton Fields (The Beach Boys), Rock Island Line (Johnny Horton), The Titanic (Pete Seeger), Ella Speed (Ian & Sylvia), The Bourgeois Blues (Ry Cooder), The Gallis Pole (Led Zepellin), The Midnight Special (Creedence Clearwater Revival), John Henry, John Hardy, Pick a Bale of Cotton, Take This Hammer, and The House of The Rising Sun (The Animals); just to name a few. There are also 16 previously unreleased recordings and WNYC radio broadcasts which haven’t been heard for 74 years.
From Woody Guthrie’s personal journal are four pages on Lead Belly. Woody writes “Lead Belly” is “the hard name of a harder man”. This box set is an insightful tribute to this hard but soft spoken man. This is a real collector’s item.