Lead Belly

Huddie William Ledbetter (1889–1949), “Lead Belly” (from Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures (Steidl, 2007))

We saluted and noted the great  Chicago bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf earlier this month. Here’s another of Allen’s music heroes – today marks the birth of the legendary Lead Belly

“I write poetry because I listened to black Blues on 1939 radio, Leadbelly and Ma Rainey“, Allen writes, in the 1984 poem “Improvisation in Beijing” 

and, from back in October 1960, writing to Jack Kerouac  “I ..read Leadbelly’s poems (songs) this afternoon. He’s great poet”.

and on one of his many portraits of Kerouac, Allen’s caption reads, “We used to wander dock sides under Manhattan’s bridges & thru truck parking lots along East River singing rawboned blues, Leadbelly’s ‘Black Girl’ or Eli Eli, chanting Annabel Lee’ & shouting Hart Crane’s ‘O Harp Altar of the fury fused.’”

“Black girl, black Girl, don’t lie to me/ Tell me where did you sleep last night?/ In the pines, In the pines, Where the sun never shines/ I shivered the whole night through..”

Lead Belly, he declared, was “my basic blues”.

In the 1940’s, when Allen was growing up,  Leadbelly could be heard live on the local radio station WNYC  He had his own show on WNYC from 1940-1941 called Folksongs of America. and between 1940 and his death in 1949 he also appeared frequently in the WNYC studios performing for Folk Songs for the Seven Million, the WNYC American Music Festival, the Metropolitan Review and on Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival.

Here’s a remarkable show from December 1940’s  Folksongs of America  Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie live together  (with additional remarks by the show’s legendary producer Henrietta Yurchenco)

and from February 1944 (also from WNYC)  Leadbelly and Alan Lomax (sic) together at the American Music Festival

The story of Alan and his father John Lomax who “discovered” Lead Belly will have to wait for another posting

but here’s Alan on Lead Belly:

and here’s Lomax and Lead Belly talkin’ about the blues 


Allen owned copies (much played) of the old (LP) Folkways records, but in 2015 Smithsonian Singh-Folkways issued  – “Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, a five-disc, pretty-much-definitive, boxed set

Here’s the illuminating Smithsonian podcast on Lead Belly

& a further one – Alvin Singh, director of the Lead Belly Foundation  (and Lead Belly’s great-nephew) with archivist Jeff Place and host Sam Litzinger

Here’s Alan Light’s comprehensive review/preview of the collection in the New York Times
Here’s Robin Denselow in The Guardian
Stephen M. Deusner in Pitchfork
& read more reviews – here 

Allen, from his 1982 interview with High Times (about listening to contemporary rock music):

“I get the same thrill. I get it to the point of weeping, listening to Leadbelly’s “Jim Crow Blues,” one of the rare things that’s total politics, total blues.”


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