Building on the Lead Belly Legacy

By Andrew Mullins

“Songs just like being around some folks more than others.” So writes Tom Waits in the introduction to “Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures.” Songs must have adored being around Huddie Ledbetter, who performed and recorded hundreds of them as Lead Belly, some among the best known melodies in American music: “Goodnight, Irene,” “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line.”

During the 1930s and 40s, the blues singer and his booming twelve-string Stella guitar churned out blues and barrelhouse songs, folk ballads and children’s ditties, work songs and field hollers, square-dance music and cowboy songs, spirituals and protest songs. The breadth of material is probably unequaled in American roots music, and Lead Belly’s odyssey from the cotton fields of Louisiana to incarceration for murder to the stages of New York with father-and-son folklorists John and Alan Lomax is the stuff of irresistible legend.

Is that legend a little faded today? Like his friend Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly has influenced countless musicians over the years: Pete Seeger, Lonnie Donegan, Van Morrison, Kurt Cobain, the White Stripes. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” said George Harrison. Even Sinatra recorded “Goodnight, Irene.” But while Lead Belly may have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, such recognition is no guarantee that much more than his colorful nickname–acquired during a term in Sugarland Prison in Texas –is known beyond nostalgic folk and blues circles these days.

[Lead Belly playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

Alvin Singh II, Lead Belly’s great-nephew, had no definitive answer for the question during a visit this past summer to the Port Townsend Country Blues Festival. But the 29-year-old Seattle resident is working hard, through the Lead Belly Foundation and Lead Belly Archives, to make sure his great uncle’s historical importance isn’t forgotten, and the music continues to exert its influence and magic.

“It’s interesting in the YouTube era,” says Singh, “to see videos of people singing ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, and saying they got this from Nirvana, and then people leaving comments: ‘That’s not Nirvana–do your research, that’s Lead Belly.’ And then somebody saying, ‘That’s not Lead Belly, that’s originally an Appalachian song.’ That kind of trickling down and discussion is what I’d like to spark.”

Singh is the grandson of Tiny Robinson, Lead Belly’s niece. As a teenager, Robinson lived for awhile with the singer and his wife Martha and she has served as genial caretaker of the Lead Belly legacy for much of her life. In the 1990s, when Tiny and her husband were moving from New York to Tennessee, she asked family friend John Reynolds, a Lead Belly enthusiast and researcher, if he would come and take a look at a trunk stored in the basement of their Brooklyn home. The trunk had been passed down from Martha Ledbetter, and what Reynolds found in it was enough to send any historian’s heart to pounding. Martha had saved everything. A treasure trove of photographs, letters, program bills, souvenirs, contracts–even a bottle of Chanel No. 5 Lead Belly had brought back for his wife from a tour of Paris. Robinson and Reynolds meticulously organized the memorabilia into portfolios in the hope of publishing a scrapbook. After ten years fruitlessly shopping the project around, the co-editors finally landed a deal with the German photography-book publisher, Steidl.

The result is an unlikely and welcome surprise for early blues fans, who usually have to settle for one or two pictures of their heroes at best. Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures features hundreds of beautifully reproduced photographs, a copy of Lead Belly’s pardon from Texas governor Pat Neff and the notoriously lopsided contract with John Lomax. Written contributions from the late Lead Belly collector Sean Killeen, Pete Seeger, Martin Scorsese and Studs Terkel, among many others, stand alongside fascinating ephemera and official records of Lead Belly’s life. These include FBI files that detail lashings Lead Belly received in Angola State Penitentiary and a list where his name appears alongside other entertainers suspected of un-American propaganda activities.

[Lead Belly playing “House of the Rising Sun”]

Part of the book provides counterbalance to the often sensationalized aspects of the Lead Belly legend, particularly the portrait of him as a dangerous ex-convict typified by the headlines of the day, such as the New York Herald Tribune proclaiming “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides” or Life magazine’s bluntly racist “Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel.”

“His [crimes] were in self-defense,” says Singh, who pens an essay called “Jailhouse Blues,” taking on the degrading image of his great uncle performing for white audiences in prison stripes during those first appearances in New York. “In the book, we didn’t want to hide from the fact that he did go to jail, but we also wanted to show that there was another side of him.”

As such, a portion of the book is a family affair, with mementos and stories–wedding photos, personal telegrams, letters discussing Huddie’s medical condition–being shared for the first time. Singh’s father, Dr. Alvin Singh, contributes a chapter recalling his childhood in a New York apartment with Lead Belly and Martha living upstairs. He would sit on his uncle’s knee while the great folksinger, quietly succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease, would play for him. The young Singh would wake “Unka Huddie” up in the morning requesting a song, and would have a command performance at night before bed from the “King of the Twelve-String Guitar.”

But soon Huddie could barely strum. The photos from this period show a family relaxing at home, caught smiling by the camera, but Lead Belly is now in a wheelchair, the proud face gaunt, the flesh and eyes tired.

After his death in 1949, only “a piece of iron pipe jutting up from a barren plot marked Lead Belly’s grave,” recalls John Reynolds of his 1955 visit to the singer’s burial ground at Shiloh Baptist Church in Mooringsport, Louisiana. Decades later, the Lead Belly Foundation was formed to provide a proper headstone. The Foundation has today expanded to fund music scholarships and after-school music programs for kids, many of whom “wouldn’t normally get a chance to pick up an instrument and play,” says Singh.

Singh is currently building up the Lead Belly Archives in Nashville, preserving all of the original materials in what will ultimately become a center for research. He has opened a Seattle office and hopes to establish internships through the University of Washington, “so that students can help out and be a part of it.” Digitization of the collection will hopefully help it grow into to a travelling exhibit, he explains, as was done by the Woody Guthrie Archives and Smithsonian Institution for an exhibit called “This Land Is Your Land” in 2000.

Plans for a video presentation of the collection have also quickly expanded into a feature-length documentary being produced by Film House out of Nashville and slated for release next year. “Just like the book, we wanted to show a side that people hadn’t seen before,” says Singh, who is an advisor to the production team. “So we immediately recorded my grandmother and then went to Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, the Lomax family, historians at the Library of Congress and Smithsonian. First we wanted to get the people who knew him and were friends. And that was humbling. This book is just here in print. But when we said, ‘OK, let’s go to New York and film Pete,’ and there he is live, direct–walking in there, everyone felt like a 12-year-old, waiting to hear a story.”

Nearly six decades after Lead Belly’s death, Singh is now a part of the story himself, working full-time on his great uncle’s legacy. His grandmother, Tiny Robinson, watches, no doubt recognizing something of herself in Singh’s efforts.

“She’s seeing me putting the pieces all over again into different settings, and she’s happy for me. She’s very supportive and I still ask her questions. She said he would be proud of all of this, and that’s ultimately what I want to do.”

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