Support the news

Tuning In To The Lead Belly Sound48:48
Download

Play

Going back to Lead Belly. The blues legend is back. His influences, as big as ever.

This image released courtesy of the Lead Belly Estate shows folk and blues musician Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter never had a hit record before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1949. (AP)
This image released courtesy of the Lead Belly Estate shows folk and blues musician Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter never had a hit record before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1949. (AP)

Huddie Ledbetter used to play his guitar in prison on Sundays for the governor of Texas.  A black man behind bars beguiling the white governor with old songs in Jim Crow days.  They called him Lead Belly.  He came up out of prison in Texas and Louisiana to beguile the whole country.  Lead Belly brought the tunes and lyrics and attitude that would roll into the folk revival.  Roll into rock.  A sound of hard times and dreams and whatever you wanted to hear.  From Dylan to Joplin to Nirvana.  This hour On Point:  the story of Lead Belly.
-- Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Jeff Place, archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Co-producer of the Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection box set. (@Folkways)
Valerie June, musician and folk singer. (@TheValerieJune)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: ‘Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection’ Review—Going From Prison Zero To Folk Hero — "There was never a time in his years of professional celebrity, though, when Lead Belly was unencumbered by somebody else’s idea of who he was, what songs he should perform, and how he’d be presented. Since then, he’s been the subject of recording reissues, salute records, books, dissertations, poems, a feature film and a postage stamp, but there have been few occasions when he hasn’t been characterized and represented in the service of some agenda—whether musical or political."

Smithsonian: The Incomparable Legacy of Lead Belly -- "If you asked ten people in the street if they knew who Lead Belly was,” Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place says, “eight wouldn’t know.” Chances are, though, they’d know many of Lead Belly songs that have been picked up by others. Chief among them: 'Goodnight Irene,' an American standard made a No. 1 hit by The Weavers in 1950, one year after the death of the blues man who was first to record it, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly."

New York Times: Lead Belly, Folk-Music Giant, Has a Smithsonian Moment -- "Lead Belly, who died in 1949, cast a giant shadow on the music that followed him, directly influencing performers from Mr. Dylan to Kurt Cobain with his versatility, his gravelly voice full of power and emotion, and his pioneering 12-string guitar style. Even his image and marketing, often emphasizing his criminal past, provided a blueprint for the presentation of hip-hop and rock artists decades later."

Playlist

This program aired on February 27, 2015.

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news