Lead Belly's Legacy: The Proteus of the Blues

by Con Chapman

There are certain artists whose legacy is a product both of variety and extent; like Proteus, the Greek sea god whom Homer called The Old Man of the Sea, they present to us both an ever-changing aspect, and one too vast to be grasped at once.


Lead Belly, singing for children.

In the music of the American folk (“folk music” carries unfortunate connotations of middle-class imitations), one such genius is Huddie (pronounced “HUGH-dee”) Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly,” whose work is featured in a forthcoming collection from The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, available February 24th. Lead Belly was black, but he was born in an area of Louisiana where African-American and Cajun musical styles mixed freely; dancers at “sukey jumps,” Saturday-night social gatherings in the Caddo Lake district where Lead Belly's father worked a 68-acre farm, weren't segregated, and he learned to play both styles on his guitar and “windjammer,” a small accordion.

Late in life, Lead Belly with his last wife Martha Promise

That early experience made of Lead Belly's music a unique hybrid; deeply rooted in the blues, but small-c catholic in its expression; Lead Belly became a musical omnivore, capable of producing every type of music from field hollers (“Whoa Back, Buck”), spirituals (“He Never Said a Mumbling Word”), blues (“Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out”), novelty tunes (“Pig Latin Song”), cowboy songs (“Springtime in the Rockies”), and children's music (“Miss Liza Jane”), to topical songs about movie stars (“Jean Harlow”), current events (“The Hindenburg Disaster”) and political figures, big and small (“Hitler Song” and “Governor O.K. Allen”). This, it is worth pointing out, is only a partial list.

In many respects, Lead Belly is a musical counterpart of Walt Whitman, who acknowledged that he contradicted himself and contained multitudes. Like Whitman, whose initially self-published “Leaves of Grass” grew like a coral reef over his lifetime, Lead Belly's work increased by accretion, spread mainly by live performance in humble venues and only sporadically recorded until the end of his life. Incarcerated for murder, Lead Belly was sent to a county prison farm of the sort memorialized in Bukka White's “Parchman Farm.” He broke out, but would go in and out of jail several more times in his life, until finally he was released from Angola State Prison Farm in 1918 and folklorist John Lomax found him and undertook to record his music for the Library of Congress.

Thus began one of the more unlikely academic partnerships ever. Lomax took Lead Belly on a lecture and recital tour, stopping at several universities, then ended up at Harvard where he presented the hulking musician to a professor who appraised Lomax's historic find and said “He is a demon.”

But Leadbelly had at that point climbed the mountain, and the rest of his life would be one of comparative ease down the other side. He was no longer the rogue whose rough prior life was visible from the scar running round his neck, the product of a knife wound that almost killed him. He was instead a national treasure, and rightly so, a walking encyclopedia of American song, and the author of some of its more memorable entries.

The extent of Lead Belly's contribution to our national culture may be gleaned from a short list of what, if he'd been born in the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth, might be called his greatest hits: Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, Rock Island Line. It is customary, when honoring blues greats, to cite the number of latter-day rock artists who have recorded their songs, and in Lead Belly's case his interpreters run the gamut from The Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra. It is likely, however, that Lead Belly stands alone in having one of his lines on the frontispiece of a novel: the title “Sometimes a Great Notion,” Ken Kesey's second novel, was lifted from Goodnight Irene.

Lead Belly, stage-dressed as a field hand in old age.

Once he began to gain acceptance among the genteel crowd Lead Belly found to his chagrin that he was, in a sense, type-cast. Like a rapper who begins to dress like a Fortune 100 captain of industry once he's made his first million, the singer who had spent much of his life in prison stripes and overalls began to favor expensive, well-tailored suits. He found that certain patrons were confused by the trappings of his success; they preferred that he remain a rustic forever, the better to experience the authenticity of the man, and he was expected to perform in the trappings of hokum.

Lead Belly's musical ecumenism motivated him to pursue success outside the narrow confines of the image that his educated admirers wanted him to retain, however; he admired and hoped to meet Gene Autry, the cowboy singer and film star, and he went to Hollywood during World War II hoping to replicate Autry's multi-media success. There he provided entertainment at celebrity parties, but he was unsuited for the homogenized product that film studios produced. As he had done throughout his life, he turned the experience into a song, “4, 5 and 9,” his recounting of the brush-off he got from one film executive. “Sure, call me up tomorrow at 45 to 9,” Lead Belly was told, and he duly telephoned the studio the next day at 8:15 a.m, telling the operator he'd been asked to call by the movie mogul. The woman broke out laughing, and Lead Belly learned that this was a gag played on ingenues of all types with delusions of stardom. That waggish producer's name is now lost to history, however, while Lead Belly's music is the subject of this comprehensive retrospective sixty-five years after his death.

For those who own “Lead Belly's Last Sessions,” a similar project issued by Smithsonian Folkways twenty years ago, there is some overlap (about forty songs), but that collection included only four compact discs and a small booklet, as compared to five discs and a 140-page book with previously unpublished photographs. For those who find Huddie Ledbetter an inexhaustible natural phenomenon, like Old Faithful or the Mississippi, these recordings are as essential to an understanding of America as a well-thumbed copy of Leaves of Grass.