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The Heart of Lead Belly

A Singer to Be Reckoned With

Jul. 30, 2008
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Take out the amateur, needlessly placed poems by Tyehimba Jess in mawkish, embarrassing praise of Lead Belly and we have a perfect book. Lead Belly: A Life inPictures (Steidl) is not merely a picture book at all, but is rife with brilliant essays and era-specific memorabilia that portray the complexity of the man who just might be America’s finest folksinger – because he sang anything and was no purist.

Every song that came his way turned into his version and, in many instances, his copyright, from “Happy Birthday To You” (covered by the world) to “Good Night, Irene” (covered by Frank Sinatra and hundreds more).

The essays in the book ably identify who Lead Belly was and was not. The photographs, many of which have never been seen, are absolutely penetrating. Tom Waits’ introduction says it best. “In mole communities they reward the brave ones.” Waits says this is a story about how Lead Belly is “responsible for taking other moles safely to the other side.”

Contributing writers include Pete Seeger, John Lomax, Jack Kerouac, Martin Scorese, Oscar Brand, Janis Joplin and Sonny Terry to name but a recognizable handful.Some are quoted and others have designated essays and stories. Insightful contributions are made by the book’s editors, Lead Belly’s niece Tiny Robinson and his confidant, John Reynolds, editors of the book. So does Sean Killeen, founder of the Lead Belly Society. The text forms a complete history of Lead Belly and the photographs are startling.

In the first known image of Lead Belly, from 1918, we see a man who is to be reckoned with: fierce, contemplative and very self-conscious. It’s a shot of a method actor, really, ready to impose his presence upon American music until his death in 1949. Assuming many roles, Lead Belly was by no means simply the person introduced to the world by folklorist John Lomax—a convict freed because he could sing American folk songs. In fact, Lomax wasn’t so pure; he became Lead Belly’s manager and his name appears on the copyright for “Good Night, Irene.” Although the story of Lomax’s exploitation of his “discovery” has been told elsewhere, it’s within the confines of this book that we realize the bottomless horror of how inappropriately Lead Belly was handled. Lomax actually made the singer perform in a striped prison outfit at colleges and concert halls as though he was some sort of aboriginal find.

Lead Belly was quite literate, and many of his moving, poetic letters are photographed for inclusion. So are handbills announcing appearances and press he garnered as he performed for countless enthralled listeners. The book is artfully arranged so that we get a linear history of the man, covering everything from his elegant, personal dress code (once out of the striped suit and away from Lomax who he later took legal action against) to his famous Stella 12-string guitar that he had made-to-order. No guitar off the rack would suit him and in the same way no song he ever sung or wrote went without customization. His originals, and they were many, blended a unique style that was folk, sure, but also echoed blues and popular music of the day – especially cowboy style songs. His favorite was Roy Rogers. He could go from songs he remembered to those he created with ease, always bringing to each his own defiant style.

One may just look at this elegant book or read it. Either way, it’s an important entry not only in the Lead Belly legacy but also for the history of American music – music that is folk here and pop there, and everywhere a brand of stalwart emotion. Lead Belly: A Life In Pictures makes certain that we fully appreciate that folksingers are not simple and that the folk process is perhaps the most complex idiom of all. Lead Belly was a storyteller. Even in achieving popularity he kept his tales close to the aesthetic of the common man and woman. Stare at him looking back at you from these pages and you know he was your neighbor by day and your visionary preacher by night.

George Harrison is quoted in the book as having said, “No Lead Belly, no Beatles.” Figure that one out and you will drop the artificial barrier between the deepness of folk and the top of pop forevermore.Going to the other side is natural, when you come from beneath it all.


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