‘Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection’ Review—Going From Prison Zero To Folk Hero

February 24, 2015 10:38 PM

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‘Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection’ Review—Going From Prison Zero To Folk Hero

Before his discovery by John and Alan Lomax in 1933 while he was serving a term in Louisiana’s prison system, Huddie Ledbetter, best known as “Lead Belly,” was a busking Louisiana street singer with a varied songster repertoire. Freed, he went on to perform professionally from 1934, when he was 46, until his death in 1949, appearing on the emerging folk-music circuit of schools, clubs and rallies, recording for various record labels and, notably, for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress. Since then, songs he personalized, arranged and popularized have become cross-genre standards regularly revisited in folk, pop, rock and country—“Goodnight, Irene,” “The Midnight Special,” “Cotton Fields,” “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night),” “Pick a Bale of Cotton.”

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...

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