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Lead Belly’s music defied racial categorization

Through his music, Lead Belly rejected the stereotype that country music was the domain of white artists, while blues music was reserved for blacks. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Last month, Smithsonian Folkways released Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, a carefully curated collection of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s recordings that is – like the singer himself – breathtaking in its muscular artistry.

Marketed by the Smithsonian Channel as “one of the most influential musicians you’ve never known,” Lead Belly’s legacy can be heard in the grooves of Led Zeppelin III, seen in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, or echoed in cavernous ballparks, where Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” plays as a relief pitcher warms up.

But beyond his influence on (mainly white) musical artists, the collection is significant because it shows how Lead Belly defied the racial categories of blues and country (as black music and white music, respectively) – stereotypes established by the burgeoning record industry of the Jim Crow era that persist today.

A black singer’s cowboy past

Born in 1888, Huddie Ledbetter was the son of landowning African Americans in western Louisiana. He was considered a bright, if undisciplined, student, and an expert horseman.

Lead Belly was drawn to many kinds of music, and he loved riding and breaking horses (later in life, he would even travel to Hollywood to try to make it as a Roy Rogers-style singing movie cowboy). He gained notoriety performing at local square dances and for church services in rural Louisiana before his explosive temper brought an end to a tough but nurturing home life. Lead Belly was arrested on charges of assault, and escaped from a chain-gang to live in Texas under the alias “Walter Boyd.” During these years, he performed extensively around Dallas with legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson before being arrested in 1917 on a homicide charge that landed him in the legendary Sugarland prison. Released nearly seven years later, he was arrested again in 1930 – this time on charges of assault with intent to kill – and was sentenced to five to ten years in prison.

As Lead Belly lingered in prison during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, the nation was experiencing sweeping cultural and economic change. Everyday life was transformed – through technology, through the arrival and growing influence of immigrant Americans and through musical recordings that surmounted the racial barriers of Jim Crow. Meanwhile, a bifurcated view of American culture began to emerge. Many pined for the older, “authentic” America – as opposed to what they characterized as a culturally corrupt present.

It’s a (misconceived) narrative that has played out perpetually in American history, as one generation passes the torch to the next.

Jailed – and therefore ‘genuine’

Perhaps due to these perceived cultural changes, in the early 1930s the Library of Congress tasked folklorists John and Alan Lomax with finding and recording older, “authentic” forms of African-American music as an act of preservation, celebration and scholarly inquiry. In 1933, the father-son duo discovered Lead Belly in Angola, a maximum security prison in Louisiana nicknamed “The Alcatraz of the South.” At Angola, convicts sang as they picked cotton, chopped wood and crushed rocks under the blazing Mississippi Delta sun. It was, to borrow a phrase from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon, slavery by another name.

Slavery by another name: forced labor was commonplace at southern prisons like Angola. Wikimedia Commons

John and Alan Lomax viewed these southern prisons as cultural time capsules, places where, due to the inmates’ isolation, older musical styles endured untarnished. The Lomaxes recorded many talented singers, but Lead Belly stood out for his skill, his memory (his mind seemingly worked like a tape recorder) and his gift as a “songster” whose repertoire encompassed the pre-and-post blues world of the Gulf Coast.

After Lead Belly’s final stint in prison, he went on to gain moderate commercial success – but only as a singer of “authentic” African-American music. Promoted as a “pure” relic of a fading past, he toured the northeast performing before mainly white audiences. Though he had an immense repertoire, he was urged to record and perform only songs like “Pick A Bail of Cotton,” while songs considered “white,” like “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” were either downplayed or cast aside.

Here, we see how a singer like Lead Belly was constrained by a commercial and cultural industry that wanted to present a certain archetype of African-American music. Meanwhile, Lead Belly biographers speculate that the artist failed to gain a following among northern African Americans because they were largely disinterested in the older styles of music that Lead Belly was encouraged to record and perform, preferring instead the sounds of Cab Calloway or Count Basie.

For this reason, Lead Belly – the supposed exemplar of African-American musical authenticity – came to be a source musician for a number of white musicians. Songs closely associated with Lead Belly like “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” “Cotton Fields,” “Rock Island Line,” “Gallows Pole” and “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)” gained widespread popularity in the hands of many white singers – Pete Seeger, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Lonnie Donegan, Van Morrison and Nirvana, to name a few.

We were left with an historical record that was misleading at best, inaccurate at worst.

Lead Belly’s ‘Gallows Pole’ would be covered by Led Zeppelin.

Folkways sets the record straight

Thankfully, Lead Belly’s Smithsonian Folkways Collection defies those cultural reductionists who would suggest that firm racial categories of blues and country ever truly existed, and that “traditional” singers were uninterested in – or, worse, corrupted by – popular music. The set’s 108 tracks may be a small sampling (Lead Belly claimed to be able to sing 500 songs without repeating one – and he likely knew far more). But a bi-cultural reality glimmers within the set’s five CDs.

Though folklorists of the 1930s wanted to present “pure” culture (as though such a thing existed), Lead Belly actually loved Gene Autry, and the Folkways Collection includes the Autry cover “Springtime in the Rockies.” Yes, Lead Belly sang blues, field hollers and spirituals. But he also recorded songs more closely associated with “white” string band traditions of old-time music (“Rattler,” “Julie Ann Johnson”) and country music (“How Come You Do Me Like You Do?”).

The set also addresses the tendency of early folklorists to omit contemporary popular songs from their field recordings and – to paraphrase historian Benjamin Filene – “romance the folk.” Instead, the set includes covers of popular blues, gospel, and R&B songs from the 1930s and 1940s (“Outskirts of Town,” “How Long, How Long,” “Rock Me (Hide Me In Thy Bosom)”) alongside folk material (“John Hardy,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton”).

The myth of authenticity

Nonetheless, we remain a nation of worriers, debating the merits of what can and can’t be called “real.” In politics, President Obama gets it from all sides – not American, not black, not Christian. And whether we realize it or not, we spend an awful lot of time arguing about authenticity and music. What is “real” country, jazz or hip-hop? Who owns a genre’s culture, and who has the right to sing certain styles?

Ultimately, a century of race-based marketing practices of record companies influences our answers, which often fall along racial, class and generational lines. Cultural historian Karl Hagstrom Miller has argued that our tendency to “segregate sound” is baggage from blackface minstrelsy and the racist policies of the Jim Crow era.

Embedded in this debate is the problematic idea that white recording artists may borrow freely, while African-Americans must stick to “their own” styles. The music industry built this quandry. In the pre-World War II era, white musicians were allowed to move freely across musical genres, while African-American musicians – Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters (who had all performed country music, alongside blues, before African-American audiences) – were actively denied the option of making commercial recordings of country music.

Perhaps Lead Belly can remind us – 125 years after his birth – that neither music, nor people, should be racially segregated. After all, as his voice tells us from these archival recordings, “We’re all in the same boat.”

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