Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: the pleasures of perusing Lead Belly, A Life in Pictures, by Tiny Robinson and John Reynolds

Today's NY Post reports That "When John Reynolds recently did a book signing in Prague for Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, the author was asked to sign a copy for playwright and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. "He's a big fan," said a friend of Havel's. "Goodnight, Irene," a Lead Belly classic, is so well known throughout the Czech Republic that children grow up thinking it's a native folk song. Right now, "Black Betty," a Tom Jones/Lead Belly mix produced by Wyclef Jean, is a big club hit there."

Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures is a terrific book for folk music and guitar buffs and Louisiana culture fans. It is an elegantly designed and written hardcover book of some 224 pages. Composed of many essays and vignettes, it is easy to consume Huddie Ledbetter's life by reasonable bits and by fascinating images.

Though the Mooringsport-born songster's story unfolded in the 1930's and 40's, Lead Belly was a media-made figure. The first image was an unfortunate one. U of Texas folklorist John Lomax thought it would be appropriate to present Lead Belly in prisoners' stripes. Huddie hated it. Having spent some 11 years of his life incarcerated in Texas and Louisiana prisons, prison garb was abhorrent.

Lead's preferred style was way uptown. He favored bow ties, pressed shirts, well-shined shoes, a fitted suit.

The image-makers of NYC found Lead Belly a rich subject. Says Wikipedia: "Life magazine ran a three-page article titled, "Lead Belly - Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel," in the April 19, 1937 issue. It included a full-page, color (rare in those days) picture of him sitting on grain sacks playing his guitar and singing. Also included was a striking picture of Martha Promise (identified in the article as his manager); photos showing Lead Belly's hands playing the guitar (with the caption "these hands once killed a man"); Texas Governor Pat M. Neff; and the "ramshackle" Texas State Penitentiary. The article's text ends with "he... may well be on the brink of a new and prosperous period."

His story in the major media had begun with the NY Herald Tribune article of Jan 3, 1935. It was subtitled "Sweet singer from the swamplands here to do a few tunes between homicides."

Then there was Ledbetter and film. His original recordings and several filmed performances are on Try his performance of "Take this hammer."

And if you get serious about his story, which is partly the story of Shreveport and Mooringsport, add one more book to your list. It's the excellent biography by Wolfe and Lornell called The Life and Legend of Leadbelly. Few photos but rich of detail.


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Anonymous said...

I've seen this book, it is amazing. It was available at the Lead Belly Blues and Folk Festival.
I'm ordering it from
Life and Legend of Lead Belly is a great book also.

the Life (and) Legend of Lead Belly has not been explored enough in this Area! Huddie Ledbetter is one of the most fascinating stories in American culture. If you get a chance to see the film "Lead Belly", it is really well done, won some awards back in about 1975.
-Bruce Flett