Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. By Lead Belly. 2015.
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways. 140 pages.
Reviewed by Philip Nusbaum, Bluegrass Review Radio Show
[Word count: 1486 words]
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Collection is a print/audio recording
documentary of the life and music of a musician who has been an
inspiration both to folk singers and folklorists. Lead Belly was a
performer who picked up songs seemingly everywhere he went. He sang
songs that kids in his home state of Louisiana would sing at play. He
learned songs from workers picking cotton, and from prison work gangs
during the stretches he served in prison. He sang blues, and
undoubtedly learned them from Blind Lemon Jefferson, for whom Lead
Belly served as a lead man for a time. He played for dancing, sang
pop songs, and he composed songs, sometimes referencing the struggles
against Jim Crow and Adolph Hitler.
Those who knew Lead Belly were awed by his abilities singing and
playing, and also by his physical strength. They were also struck by
his commitment to playing and singing his songs before varied types
of audiences. There is a section on pages 118-119 written by a living
relative, Queen “Tiny” Robinson, that tells about Lead Belly’s deep
feelings for the songs he performed.
To his contemporaries, Lead Belly represented an elevated artistic
stature. Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection follows
through with a final product that matches Lead Belly’s stature. It
contains 108 songs on five CDs that slip into sturdy pages. The
accompanying essays are printed on glossy paper and bound with the
pages that hold the CDs in hardcover. The entire collection is
obviously made to last, sitting on a shelf as a handy reference and
To the folklorist, the accompanying essays that place the music in
context in large part account for the importance of Lead Belly: The
Smithsonian Folkways Collection. The article, “Lead Belly: A Man of
Contradictions and Complexity,” is presented as an introduction, but
it seems more like an essay in its own right. In it, producer Robert
Santelli reminisces about discovering Lead Belly as a teenager, and
recounts being scared to bring home the collection of 78 rpm records
called Negro Sinful Songs because his policeman father might not like
it. Santelli obviously thought that Lead Belly demanded attention and
documents how over the years since Lead Belly’s death in 1948, many
performers in many fields of music have recorded his songs,
demonstrating that they thought so too. Santelli also recounts the
irony of Lead Belly’s importance to folklorists and other folk music
supporters, and to artists such as Woody Guthrie, while African
American people often did not care about Lead Belly’s repertoire
because it seemed to represent the South they detested.
The second essay, “The Life and Legacy of Lead Belly,” is contributed
by the “writer” of the project, Jeff Place of the Ralph Rinzler
folklife archives of the Smithsonian Institution. In the 30+ pages of
the essay, Place tells how Lead Belly was influenced by family
members to take up music. When he was old enough to make his own way,
after days spent in sharecropping, Lead Belly played for dances, and
in bars, gambling places, and whore houses. Fannin Street in
Shreveport, Louisiana, was a source of endless fascination for Lead
Belly. Sitting close to pianists in Fannin Street places, Lead Belly
learned to love the parts played by pianists’ left hands. Later, he
adopted the 12-string guitar, an instrument which Lead Belly used to
produce rich-sounding bass lines.
However, in the post-slavery era of the late-nineteenth into the
twentieth century, when blacks were losing gains that had been made
in the years following emancipation, it was easy for an African
American man to get into trouble. Place tells of Lead Belly’s murder
convictions and also about how the legal system might have handled
Lead Belly’s cases differently in different eras.
The folk song collector, Alan Lomax, documented Lead Belly in prison.
After Lead Belly was released from prison, Lomax hired Lead Belly as
a driver. He also set up Lead Belly performances. The introduction
tells how questions over the financial arrangement between the two
men eventually led to their separation. Lead Belly also did not care
for being promoted as a brute or as a curiosity because of his murder
convictions. However, Lomax and Lead Belly were together long enough
for Lead Belly to get connected to the folk song establishment on the
East Coast. Through this fragile folk infrastructure, Lead Belly
secured performances and recording opportunities. While these did not
add up to what anyone would consider a decent living, notice by
influential members of the folk music infrastructure caused the name
Lead Belly to stick in the minds of music listeners, musicians,
folklorists, and others who cared about traditional music.
The background to Lead Belly and his music is presented in a style
that both scholars and folk music enthusiasts will enjoy. Santelli,
when working with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had an opportunity
to visit with Queen “Tiny” Robinson, a niece of Lead Belly. Ms.
Robinson possessed a collection of “history relics” related to Lead
Belly, including his Stella 12-string guitar. It was she who
contributed Lead Belly-related items to the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame, and informed Santelli that the family always considered Lead
Belly as two words. That is how the name appears throughout the work.
Part of the exchange, too, was that Santelli promised to tell Lead
Belly’s story at the museum in terms of his music and not his
sometimes-troubled personal life. This is a position that the
Collection maintains. The section with Ms. Robinson provides a family
context for Lead Belly.
The recordings are accompanied by over 130 pages of text and
graphics. Among the graphics are many photographic images of Lead
Belly and other folk music figures; handwritten and typewritten notes
by Lead Belly, other singers and record company figures; pictures of
tickets to Lead Belly concerts, concert posters; historic record
jackets, and other memorabilia. It is all beautifully laid out.
Some recording and essay products present a curated sequence of
songs. That does not appear to be true in the case of Lead Belly: The
Smithsonian Folkways Collection. On page 43, Jeff Place tells us that
the collection “is an overview of Lead Belly’s all too brief 15-year
recording career.” He then tells us that the work surveys 200 years
of American popular song, with Lead Belly’s unique spins, and invites
those who enjoy the anthology to investigate more of the music. Then
come the recordings.
Some documentary recordings are set up so that each piece presented
represents an aspect of whatever is being documented. This approach
may help you if you are using a collection to help create lesson
plans. On the other hand, you can also think that this type of
organization might yield a simplistic or even a shallow level of
insight into the subject of the project. Regardless of any debate
over the best way to connect songs with what they represent, the
writing herein contains many references to specific songs, and the
notes to the songs contain plenty of information. It will not require
a great deal of effort to connect writings with recordings to create
The first three of the five discs are culled from the many Lead Belly
recordings released to the public over time. The majority of the
recordings on these discs feature Lead Belly singing and playing the
guitar. Other artists, such as Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston, to name
a few, accompany Lead Belly on some tracks. A few selections feature
the Oleander gospel quartet with Lead Belly. There are a few examples
of Lead Belly playing the accordion. Selections on the fourth CD were
taken from folk music programming originally heard over WNYC in New
York City, many of which were created by Henrietta Yurchenco.
Henrietta taught about folk music at City College of New York, and
served as a link between the New York folk music scene in the era of
Lead Belly and the students of the 1960s and beyond. The fifth CD in
the collection is devoted to songs originally recorded on Lead
Belly’s Last Sessions, originally issued on a series of Folkways LPs.
Many Lead Belly connoisseurs regard the Last Sessions recordings as
the finest in the entire Lead Belly catalog. The recordings were made
on a wire recorder, the invention that predated magnetic tape, about
a year before Lead Belly’s death. The sessions took place in a living
room with some of Lead Belly’s close friends in attendance. The crowd
encourages Lead Belly, and he gives inspired performances. It’s a
fitting conclusion to the audio portion of the project.
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Collection is a well-conceived and needed
collection. It brings a group of important recordings together in a
convenient package with writings and graphics that tell of the
importance of Lead Belly and what he represents. The collection will
help carry the word about Lead Belly into the future.
Read this review on-line at:
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Capital Gallery Building,Suite 2001
600 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20024
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
P.O. Box 37012 MRC 520
Washington, DC 20013-7012