There’s a new documentary about the blues and folk genius Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) on the Smithsonian Channel. Legend of Lead Belly follows the career of the 12-string guitar wonder who absorbed the music of rural and small-town America in his travels through his native Louisiana and Texas.
The writer and arranger who gave us Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, Rock Island Line, and In Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home was famously “discovered” while serving time in Alabama by the musicologist John Lomax and his son, Alan. They brought Lead Belly to New York.
Commercial success was elusive, however. He failed to connect with black audiences in Harlem. The record producer Joe Boyd was interviewed in the program. According to Boyd:
Lead Belly, when he emerged from prison in the Thirties, was already an anachronism in terms of African American music. And so the only real audience for Lead Belly was white audiences.
Of a certain kind, that is. Lead Belly was taken up by “some of the most prolific musical radicals of the day.” He “found an audience with the leftist community,” in the delicate phrasing of Kevin Strait of the Smithsonian.
This sojourn among the Red folkies was faute de mieux. It included hootenannies in the Ledbetter apartment in midtown Manhattan, where the host always played and sang in a suit, bow tie, and carefully placed handkerchief—the crisp attire of the self-made man. Meanwhile Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the rest would show up in work shirts and jeans, which they wore because they were “trying to represent the common man,” says the musician’s grand nephew, Alvin Singh.
One of the players at the gatherings, Tom Paley, says Lead Belly was friendly in “a slightly formal way.” Eventually the dapper host, prompted by his long-suffering wife and her sister, would hint to his guests that it was time to wrap it up.