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Lead-BellyLead Belly

Lead Belly is one of the most outstanding figures of the folk world and his influence on the music of the 20th Century and beyond is immesurable – “No Lead Belly – no Beatles” George Harrison once said.

 

And yet he was  a man who served two prison terms  –  one for murder  –  one for attempted murder  –  and legend has it that his singing won him a pardon each time.

 

While serving his second term in the state pen he came to the attention of John Lomax and his son Alan who were recording songs from prisoners as part of their Amrican folk song collecting project. Lead Belly so impressed them with his repertoire of folk and blues songs and his own compositions that they went on to record hundreds of songs from him.

 

There have been hundreds of covers of his songs – the songs he wrote like Bourgeoise Blues  and Jean Harlow  and the traditional and minstrel show songs he made his own like Goodnight Irene and Midnight Special

 

His topics covered women, liquor, prison life, and racism, cowboys,  sailors, cattle herding, and he also wrote songs about people in the news, such as Franklin D. RooseveltAdolf HitlerJean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes.

 

He hardly made a penny from his recordings  during his lifetime  –  whatever he made was from perfomances yet one of his songs Goodnight Irene was covered by The Weavers,J udy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chet Atkins, Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Jerry Garcia, The Chieftains and Willy Nelson, Half Man Half Biscuit, John Martyn, Tom Waits  and Ronnie Drew

 

He was a proud and dignified man, appeared everywhere in a shirt and collar and neatly pressed suit with highly polished shoes, he had a great  a sense of his own place in the world
And yet in every photo you see of him you can see an elemental sadness too
He came from a plantation where his people would not long have been out of slavery and  his story in a way is the story of black and poor America and like Woody Guthrie his is a story not of politicians and generals and bankers but of the people who really built it up with their hands and the strength of their backs.

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