'That Blew My Mind': Raiding The Lead Belly Vault

Mar 4, 2015
Originally published on February 23, 2015 7:30 am

The story of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter reads like a parody of the brutal bluesman biography: Kill a man, go to prison — twice — then appeal for a pardon in a song. According to the legend, Lead Belly's undeniable talent convinced Texas Governor Pat Neff to let him go.

"The states all kinda got ticked off when that story came out," says Jeff Place, an archivist with Smithonian Folkways. "They said no, no — he really got out both times because his time was up."

With a new box set called Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, Place is hoping to set the record straight on that and other aspects of the musician's legacy. He says the musicologist John Lomax really did "discover" Lead Belly in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana — but that Lomax also carefully crafted and exploited Lead Belly's image as a dangerous criminal.

"He took Lead Belly up to the East and to New York to present to a lot of the folklorists and scholars as this sort of primitive savage from Louisiana. You know, the newspapers cried out, "Sweet savage from the swamplands, here to play a few concerts for you between murders,'" Place says. "It was kind of like the guy coming back and presenting King Kong.

"And it gave Lead Belly a career. He probably would not have had a career like that if Lomax hadn't discovered him; he might have stayed in the South and never been known to any of us. But I discovered a letter the family had where he dictated to his niece his feelings about the matter, where he seems to say, 'Look, yeah, I did some bad things, you know? And I paid my time; I did really hard time for this stuff. It's over. Let's put it behind me. I don't want to talk about that anymore.'"

To most listeners, the name Lead Belly evokes blues, spirituals, work songs and the like, but Place says the artist's range was greater: He was fond of busking, and would memorize anything from current pop songs to children's game songs to Hawaiian music and play it in public. He also secured a weekly slot on WNYC in New York.

"Most of the radio stations didn't really like him on the air, 'cause his heavy Lousiana accent was hard to understand and the audience complained. But there was an anthropologist named Henrietta Yurchenco who had a show on WNYC for a few years in the '40s called Folk Songs of America," Place says. "He'd pick a topic and kind of riff for 15 minutes on songs and words, and then play a little snippet of 'Goodnight, Irene,' and that'd be the end of the show."

Through the process of researching the musician's history and helping remaster his work, Place says he discovered things that even the most diehard Lead Belly enthusiasts have likely never heard. One gem that shone especially bright was recorded by producer Frederic Ramsey.

"Ramsey recorded a lot of stuff at his apartment, and this one tape I found is simply the two of them sitting around, listening to Ramsey's record collection and commenting on, "Oh, I like that song,'" Place says. "They're playing Bessie Smith, and Lead Belly starts singing in perfect pitch along with Bessie Smith as a duet. That blew my mind."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The story of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter reads like a parody of the brutal bluesman biography. Kill a man, go to prison - actually, do to that twice - then appeal for a pardon in a song. According to the legend, Lead Belly's undeniable talent convinced Texas Governor Pat Neff to let him go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "LEAD BELLY: THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS COLLECTION")

HUDDIE LEDBETTER: (Singing) If I had you, Governor Neff like you got me, I'd wake up in the morning, I would set you free. Where you going? I'm going back to Mary.

JEFF PLACE: The states all kind of got ticked off when that story came out and said no, no, he really got out both times because his time was up.

RATH: Jeff Place sets the record straight. He's the archivist behind a new box set of Lead Belly recordings from Smithsonian Folkways. Place says the musicologist John Lomax really did discover Lead Belly in the infamous Angola Prison in Louisiana. But Lomax carefully crafted and exploited Lead Belly's image as a dangerous criminal.

PLACE: He took Lead Belly up to the East and to New York to present to a lot of the folklorists and scholars, you know, as a sort of primitive savage, you know, from Louisiana. You know, the newspapers cried out sweet savage from the swamp lands here to play a few concerts for you between murders. And he dressed him up in like prison, like, stripes on stage. He had him do this whole song and dance thing. He gave Lead Belly a career. He probably would not have had a career, you know, like that if Lomax hadn't discovered him. He probably might have stayed in the South and never been known to any of us.

But I discovered a letter in the family he had that he - where he dictated to his niece his feelings about the matter. It's really never even been published before. It's in the book, where, you know, he used to say look, you know, yeah, I did some bad things and I paid my time. I did really hard time for this stuff. It's over, let's put it behind me. I don't want to talk about that anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "LEAD BELLY: THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS COLLECTION")

LEDBETTER: (Singing) I've been traveling, I've been traveling from toe to toe. Everywhere I have been, I find some old Jim Crow. One thing people I want everybody to know, you're going to find some Jim Crow every place you go.

RATH: You know, when we hear Lead Belly, we think blues. And we think things like these prison songs, work songs or protest songs or spirituals. But over these five CDs, there's an incredible range beyond that.

PLACE: That was, like, a great thing about Lead Belly, and also kind of hurt him in some ways. If you - he wanted to play places on the streets to make money by putting a hat out, he had to play, like, current pop songs. And he'd play Hawaiian music and cowboy songs and children's game songs and prison songs and - you name it. Any song he heard, he would memorize it and play it.

RATH: Historical songs about the Hindenburg or the Titanic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "LEAD BELLY: THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS COLLECTION")

LEDBETTER: (Singing) It was a midnight on the scenic valley train. You are my God today. It was midnight on the scenic Valley train. You're my God today.

RATH: One of the real treasures on this set is you get to hear this show that he did in New York City on WNYC.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FOLKSONGS OF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: Folksongs of America - another program by that inimitable singer of America's own songs - Huddie Lead Belly Ledbetter.

PLACE: He had done some radio. Lomax got him on the radio a lot in New York City. But, you know, most radio stations didn't really like him on the air because of his heavy Louisiana accent. It was hard to understand and the audience complained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "LEAD BELLY: THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS COLLECTION")

LEDBETTER: Now, this is a grey goose. The preacher went on hunting down by my home on a Sunday when he was supposed to have been at church. And he was a pastor of that church. And he went out to try and kill a grey goose instead of being at church.

PLACE: But there was an anthropologist named Henrietta Yurchenco who had a show on WNYC for, like, a few years in the early '40s and again in the late '40s called Folksongs of America. And she actually - you know, Woody Guthrie helped encourage her to hire Lead Belly. So he came in and was doing like, I think a weekly show. For 15 minutes, you know, he would come on and sing a little bit of "Goodnight Irene." And he'd, like, pick a topic or pick something or riff for 15 minutes on songs and words then play a little snippet of "Goodnight Irene." And that'd be the end of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FOLKSONGS OF AMERICA")

LEDBETTER: (Singing) Goodnight Irene. Good night Irene. I'll see you in my dreams.

RATH: Jeff, you've spent so much time up close with this man's music. You know, both the historical research and, you know, the re-mastering kind of going through it almost note by note. Is there anything in Lead Belly that still surprises you?

PLACE: While I was working on this project, I was still finding things I didn't know existed that were hiding, you know? This tape or - Frederic Ramsey, who recorded him on reel-to-reel tape, which was really important because when you record it directly to disk, before that they could only be three, four minutes long, so you couldn't get any of his wordplay. You can get that on a reel-to-reel tape. Ramsey recorded a lot of stuff at his apartment of Lead Belly. And this one tape I found, which I guess somehow we never listened to, which was simply the two of them sitting around listening to Ramsey's record collection and, like, commenting on like - oh, I like that song. Yeah, this is so-and-so...

RATH: This is on the CD where you can hear them - they're listening to like Bessie Smith and commenting.

PLACE: Exactly. They're playing Bessie Smith and Lead Belly's - oh yeah, you know, Bessie Smith. And he starts singing this Bessie Smith song. And Ramsey drops the needle on the Bessie Smith '78. And Lead Belly starts singing in perfect pitch along with Bessie Smith as a duet. And that was just like - blew my mind. And I said well, what's this doing? I never knew this was here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "LEAD BELLY: THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS COLLECTION")

LEDBETTER: (Singing) I'll be with you down and out.

RATH: That's Jeff Place. He's an archivist with Smithsonian Folkways. Their new retrospective box set on blues musician Lead Belly is out on Tuesday. Jeff, thanks very much.

PLACE: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "LEAD BELLY: THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS COLLECTION")

LEDBETTER: (Singing) We're going to check into the town. We're going to check into the town. We're going to check into the town some day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.