Digging Into Lead Belly's America: An Interview with Smithsonian Folkways' Jeff Place

In a letter written for Sing magazine in 1955, Pete Seeger wrote about his friend -- and one of his biggest personal and professional influences -- Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly:

"Looking back, I think that the most important thing I learned from him was the straightforward approach, the direct honesty. He bequeathed to us also, it is true, a coupla hundred of the best songs any of us will ever know. I wish people would stop trying to imitate his accent, though, and rather learn from his subtle simplicity, and his powerful pride. 

"Well, one year, in 1949, he started having to use a cane to go on stage. His voice, always soft and husky when speaking, still rang out high on the melodies, but his hands grew stiffer and less certain on the guitar. Then one day he was gone, and we were left with regrests that we had not treasured him more."

Similar things were also written and said by Woody Guthrie, and no doubt countless other iconic singers and songwriters since. Though Lead Belly's name may not be as far-and-wide recognized beyond the folk world as are Pete and Woody's, his influence is undoubtably pervasive. A songster in the truest sense Lead Belly was a master at any style one could imagine. He picked up songs and melodies, lyrical bunches, motifs, and chord progressions everywhere he went, working them out on his full, resonant 12-string guitar -- the only instrument that could hope to be a match for his full, resonant voice. 

The legend around Lead Belly was that he sang his way out of prison twice, and was, the second time, released in the care of John and Alan Lomax, who were in Texas at the time collecting prison songs. They were so taken with Lead Belly, the story goes, that they petitioned the governor for his freedom and won it. (The prison warden would swear that Lead Belly's sentence was near finished, anyway, and he was due out on good behavior.) Whatever the truth was, the Lomaxes paraded Lead Belly around the country, playing up his prison past, playing off racist sensationalism of the day to turn Lead Belly into a star. Eventually, the songster grew tired of the exploitation and distanced himself from the Lomaxes, finding kindred spirits in Seeger and Guthrie, and the Almanac Singers, and veering into more expansive musical territory. 

A new, exhaustive box set from Smithsonian Folkways (six CDs and an extensive book about Lead Belly's life and career) succeeds at capturing the incredible breadth and reach of Lead Belly's music and influence. It pulls together a remarkable collection of archival photos, radio bits, and other extreme rarities, including never-before-released recordings that, taken together, tell a part of American music history that need not go little-known anymore. 

The collection is a feat of archival excellence, and a must-have for anyone who cares about American folk and roots music, or American history at that. I recently had the chance to speak with its producer and the author of its liner notes, Jeff Place, about his experience collecting the photos, recordings, and other materials, as well as the extent of Lead Belly's talent and influence. 

Kim Ruehl: While reading the book that came with this box set, I couldn’t help thinking about how the story of Lead Belly would never have been plausible these days. It would be hard to believe that an African-American man in prison on a murder fcharge would ever get out because of the advocacy of some folklorists.

Jeff Place: Well, that’s the [legend]. The warden swears it had nothing to do with Lomax and the music, that he was actually due to get out on good behavior points. But Lomax made a good story and used it to market Lead Belly.

I never realized how exploitative they were of that story, dressing him up in prison garb and whatnot. What do you make of that? Knowing what a presence of a man he was, it’s kind of hard to believe he would have let himself be exploited in that way, but I guess he got tired of it after a while.

Well, he did. There were all these headlines, some of them are in the book. But it’s almost like [they were saying that Lomax] found King Kong in the jungle and brought him to New York and paraded him around as “the sweet savage of the swamplands,” is what he was being called. Lead Belly wanted to have a career so he went along with it, because it worked. But it got to a point where it just didn’t anymore, for him, you know. The Lomaxes were taking two-thirds of the money and doling out little bits to him, thinking he was like a child who had to have an allowance. Like, if he had too much money, he’d spend it on bad stuff like alcohol.

You mention in the book that this was attributable to John Lomax’s upbringing in Texas and his beliefs in segregation…

Yeah, he grew up in that world. Alan, though, was very, very left wing. He wouldn’t have gone along with that except that his dad was so powerful, when the two of them were together.

How big of a deal was it for Lead Belly to hook up with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and particularly Pete’s advocacy of his work?

I think it was a big deal for Woody and Pete. I think they got tremendous inspiration out of Lead Belly and his playing. Pete – I’m working on a Pete Seeger thing now, and there are all these times when Pete talks about being a 20 year-old guy and getting into that circle of people, and how Lead Belly was completely inspirational to him. He was this guy with all these songs. For Lead Belly, it gave him people who were like him to hang out with. It was a very different, [New York] City was, coming from his background. There was this scene that was half black guys and half white guys, and women, all hanging out together. It was a big change for him.

What was the impetus for releasing this collection now?

Well, it comes out of, remember the Woody at 100 project from a couple years ago? It looks just like this, it’s a book like that. It was the first one, for Woody’s centennial. It went over really well, Bob Santelli, the CEO of the Grammy Museum, came back and said we should do one on Lead Belly, have some concerts for Lead Belly and make a Lead Belly year. Then we wanted to have a Pete Seeger one for next year, so I’m working on the Pete Seeger one now… . The three really major, iconic artists in the Folkways catalog are Woody, Pete, and Lead Belly. We have all this material, we have all this stuff in the archive of these people. You can’t do full service to them by putting out a little box with a CD. [We have these] radio things and little snippets of things. They work in this kind of way.

I’ve been there a very long time and at some point I’ll retire and go somewhere else. I’m pushing 30 years of learning about this stuff and working with it, so this is a great chance to sort of download my brain and work on these projects.

Maybe I’m biased because I’m in the folk world, but there seems to be a new boom with folk music – the songster tradition seems to be coming back through Dom Flemons, putting out that songster record, and really what the Chocolate Drops are doing, and you’ve got Ben Hunter and others. Do you think this is… is there a hope that this’ll add some fuel to that?

I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’d love it. There are these waves of interest in Lead Belly every 10 or 15 years, or so. Maybe this’ll kick it off and get a whole bunch of people into him. That’d be great, you know. But really, Lead Belly’s such an iconic artist, just like Woody. He deserves this tribute just because of who he was.

A lot of people probably know about “Goodnight Irene” and the other songs that Pete and Woody sang. But the breadth of Lead Belly’s catalog, the different styles that were recorded in here were pretty incredible.

Yeah, he was the ultimate songster. He would do Hawaiian songs and cowboy songs and Tin Pan Alley pop songs and blues. The classic story of course is the one about the song, “If It Wasn’t for Dicky,” which is in the book. He heard an Irish guy singing this song in Irish. He heard the melody and loved the melody. He asked the Irish guy what it was about, and the Irish guy told him what it was about, so he went home and wrote a song about a cow, because the Irish song was about a cow. Then there was such a lovely melody that the Weavers took all the lyrics off of it and turned it into “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” Those lyrics were never part of the original at all, but he would hear these songs and commit them to memory, like he had a little tape deck in his head, and then he’d go home and work it out on his guitar. He did that for years. No matter what the music was. If he heard it and liked it, he went with it.

He also wrote some pretty great songs from scratch.

I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff he wrote that he wrote on the spot that never got recorded, and probably never written down anywhere, that just vaporized and went off into the ether. He used to do a lot of that stuff. All his wordplay and rapping, which was a long tradition in African folklore… that was really a part of him, doing this extemporaneous stuff. That’s why we put the radio thing on there, because it captures [everything that] he was doing.

I think it’s really going to blow some minds, for sure, how much he was capable of. So what do you hope people will get out of this, aside from just preserving the story of Lead Belly?

The full story, for a lot of people who knew him, for his family. I thought it was really cool that I found that thing where Lead Belly was talking to his niece, Tiny Robinson, about how he felt and she wrote down on paper what he was telling her. Those papers told how he really felt about what the Lomaxes were doing. That was really cool because you always get people saying Lead Belly did this or Lead Belly did that, but that’s the first time I’d seen Lead Belly say it himself. So that was kind of cool.

But, like with the Woody thing and the Pete thing that’s coming, this is trying to do a total survey of his entire career, including the Library of Congress things and things [he did] earlier on. As much as we could get of all the great songs of Lead Belly in one place. A lot of them are broken up in different places.

Sometimes the Smithsonian can be like Switzerland, you know. We’re between a lot of different people, so we can actually work with them. Columbia may not want to work with RCA [for example,] because they’re competition; but we’re not competition, so we can get licensing from people.

There’s a really nice thing I found from Columbia. All of Lead Belly’s last session takes, they were sitting in Fred Ramsey’s apartment and they just recorded a ton of Lead Belly stuff. That way, Lead Belly could really riff because there was no time limit. One of the tapes I’d never listened to before, it was basically Ramsey and Lead Belly sitting in Ramsey’s apartment, listening to Ramsey’s record collection. Ramsey was a big blues and jazz collector, and they’re talking about other people’s music. And there’s one place where Ramsey says something about Bessie smith, and Lead Belly says, “Oh yeah I met her in 1915 in Alabama.” He starts singing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Ramsey pops the 78 on and you hear it coming on in the background, and all of a sudden you hear Lead Belly sing in perfect pitch with Bessie, in a duet. That was an old Columbia 78 that we had to license to put it on the record. I thought that was some kind of great historical thing that was hiding in a box for years.

That’s amazing. Another thing that’s amazing is the photos you collected for this book. Can you talk a little about collecting those?

A lot of them came from a guy named John Reynolds, who donated a lot of that stuff to the Smithsonian. John started in the early ‘50s, being a Lead Belly enthusiast, like a fan club guy. He and another guy were what they called Lead Belly letterists, the Lead Belly Society. I don’t want to say it was a fan club, but they put out this newsletter and all this stuff about Lead Belly. John spent his life collecting photos and things, every newspaper clipping. He had a file cabinet full of stuff on Lead Belly.

Then I went down and visited Lead Belly’s family and they had a lot of stuff they’d kept over the years. Then there was another collector out west who had a lot of stuff. John had already scanned a lot of stuff, so that was great. The biggest source was John, but it’s amazing how many really nice photos existed. People didn’t have photos in those days like we do now. People weren’t walking around with cameras. For a photo to exist, a real photographer had to be doing a photo shoot, so there’s a limited amount of Woody Guthrie photos out there but there seem to be a ton of Lead Belly photos. He got a lot of press in New York, I know, because of all the mythology and people knew who he was. But I guess photographers decided he was photo-worthy.

What’s the timeline on the Pete Seeger project?

It’ll be 2016. But it’ll be bigger, because Woody and Lead Belly had essentially a 10-15-year career playing music. Fifteen for Lead Belly, maybe 10 or 12 for Woody. Pete had a 70-year career, so there’s a lot more to do, a lot more photos, a lot more to sift through for Pete. It’ll be six CDs but it’ll be a lot of work to get it down to six CDs. There’s so much. That’ll be the same kind of thing, and then the three icons will have their books.

For this one, though, Lead Belly is the guy. Smithsonian did a movie that’s going to be on the Smithsonian channel the same time this comes out. There’ll be a groundswell of Lead Belly stuff. There’ll also be a Lead Belly concert at the Kennedy Center in April, with a lot of current musicians playing Lead Belly’s music. 

For a full track listing and other info on the Smithsonian Folkways' Lead Belly Collection, visit their website.

Thank you,  Kim!  What a great interview.  I learned some new stuff here and look forward to following through on it. 2015, The Year of Lead Belly. I'm cool with that.   

Agree.  Excellent piece!

Not that I know that much about Lead Belly but the Lomax thing was surprising to me.

Great interview. I'm looking forward to the release of this box set.  Lead Belly was a brilliant, creative, improvising, artist with a unique cultural grasp and influence. He encompassed a wide swath of American music. Along with his iconic 12-string guitar, he played piano, button accordian (windjammer), slide guitar and probably more. He was a complex individual, not surprising, given his life experience.  

The conflicting relationships among Lead Belly and two Lomaxes is worthy of a play in itself.   Anyone interested in American roots music is in debt to John Lomax.  Whatever his faults, and I'm sure they were many, John Lomax was a pioneer collector (starting with Cowboy Songs in 1910) and later recordist of America's traditional music. This work continued throughout his life and his son's life . Much of the music that we know and love, as America's folk heritage would have been lost to us if  it had not been collected and widely published by John Lomax.        

Couldn't agree more, and Place was careful to talk about how John Lomax was very much a product of his upbringing. People were of the times -- you can't always fault someone for that, though the impulse to do so is pretty strong. But Lomax produced a couple of children who were incredibly progressive and did a lot of work to move the times forward -- Alan with his work as a collector and Bess with the Almanac Singers and later in her life as a folk music advocate, teacher, etc.

Saw this show in January as part of the Calliope Folk Music series in Pittsburgh.  Reverend Jones' depiction of Leadbelly was spellbinding.  Josh White, Jr. was also excellent, as was their keyboardist, the ebullient Radoslav Lorkovic.  Thanks for the profile of one of our great folk artists.

John & Alan Lomax were venal, mendacious, and morally bankrupt.He looked down on us white Southerners as stupid, and Black Southerners - negroes -as mere children, sort of musical savants. Got into a shouting match with Alan in Memphis over the fact the John & Alan copyrighted of all of Leadbelly's songs in their name, not his.In fact, the Lomax Family built a family fortune stealing the song rights of poor Southern African Americans and poor white Appalachian Americans.Those greedy bastards stole America's songbook,& stole the creativity/song copyrights of everyone they recorded when possible.I asked Alan why he never created a scholarship in Leadbelly's name,or did anything for the Leadbetter descendents.John was a theif, and so was Alan.I despise them both,& all the other song stealers.Same thing happened to Robert Johnson's songs,by a different POS. Why is anyone surprised?Scalawag plus carpetbagger.

New Orleans Alice,

I don't want to use these pages to be uncivil, when I'm sure everybody here truly loves roots "real" music, and there are often strong and informed, differences of opinion, but  I think your post (rant) is out of character for this site. 

1.  I thought that John A. and Alan Lomax WERE white Southerners. Isn't Texas part of the South?  Was I misinformed?  

2.  Regardless,  your overheated prose about "stealing America's songbook" at a time when virtually no one else was interested in recording and publishing such work, makes your argument suspect on its face.  I'm sure that you feel you would have done a better job collecting, recording and publishing in 1910, in the 1930s and 1940s-1960s. But you didn't,  they did,  in the case of Alan, all over the world and their work is now available to us.    

I wouldn't deign to call you "venal, mendacious and morally bankrupt,"  particularly after you were dead and could not defend yourself.  Were the Lomaxes flawed, imperfect vessels?  Yep, they were, so am I, and, unless I miss my guess, so are you. So, if you wish to be taken seriously,  please tamp down the vitriol and tell us how you would have done it.           

No, Texas is not a southern state,ask any Texan. Texas is a southwestern state.Alan lived in New York most of his adult life,did graduate school at Columbia,& died in Florida.Yes, he & his father did massive recordings,copyrighted the songs to themselves.Look up who owns the rights=royalties of Leadbelly's "Midnight Special", not Huddie Ledbetter. What I wrote about Alan,I said to his face many years ago at a Blues Foundation seminar in Memphis,I represented the Delta Blues Museum (that's in Mississippi).His paternalistic racism & hubris were as insulting as it gets to us Southerners of all hues.I am from Alabama,65, undergrad and graduate degrees from UA.I was,am the archivist for the last 20 or so years for the late J.Wexler.I did field recordings in the Delta 35+ years ago,which I donated to the proper academic,sat on boards of traditional folklife associations,live in New Orleans,work at a university here.Producing documentary on the African American man who taught Hank Williams to play&perform,did all the primary & original research, has been vetted,part of history in academic institutions.Since Lomaxes were profit motivated, their writings cannot be used academically,only the recordings. Lomaxes & Columbia Records made a good bit of money off of these recordings.Just not the people who created & performed the recordings. And you are A-okay with that. 

Stealing is always a wrong,even if no one is interested in what you steal at the time.It's still stealing. Having worked with Blues people who were having their royalties stolen since no one remembered them,I have an idea how they felt about their creations & royalties.ASCAP is very scrupulous about this sort of thing now,thanks to a great lawyer,& friend,on Music Row (that's in Nashville).It's a Southern thing, Mr.Harty, something you will never understand.