I have to say that the concert at the Kennedy Center celebrating the 125th birthday of Lead Belly was a life-changing experience for me. When I look deep down and think about the significance of the event on the personal level, I am brought back to my own 19-year-old self in Phoenix, Arizona settling into college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Let me explain a bit.
It was around 2001—I had been playing guitar and harmonica for about three years mostly focusing on Bob Dylan, The Beatles and early ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll. The first time I heard the name Lead Belly was in Bob Dylan’s song “Song To Woody” where he mentions “Cisco, Sonny and Lead Belly too.” Being a studious individual, I looked up the names of these influences on a musician who had recently become my own influence. I even read an interview with Bob Dylan that began something like this:
“No No No,” says Bob Dylan when asked if he would suggest younger musicians follow his path to sound like him. “I wouldn’t have people listen to me. If you really want to sound like me, you have to delve deep and listen to the things I listened to when I was coming up. That’s the only way to understand how I made the music I made, if I even made it…”
I found an album called Lead Belly Sings Folk Songs (on Folkways Records, now owned by the Smithsonian), which I feel may have been the album Dylan referenced in the song. It was an open jam with Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and Lead Belly singing “We Shall Be Free” and a variety of other songs. I enjoyed the album but it would be a few years before I would find the album that would really set me off on a full on fanatical journey to Lead Belly’s repertoire. I went to NAU and not soon after enrolling I found myself in Cline Library delving deep into its LP collection. I had purchased a turntable that I had hooked up to two guitar amps for maximum stereo sound. Being in an era before the internet ruled everyone’s lives, there was no easy instruction book for listening to LPs and vinyl wasn’t a valid means to listen or consume music for most people around me except DJs, and they didn’t really play much folk music.
Searching in the collection I found an album in two parts called Lead Belly’s Last Sessions. It features a portrait of a somber looking Lead Belly, eyes closed, powerful. I was engrossed in this album. It wasn’t just the songs but it was the talking—it was the casual nature of Lead Belly that drew me in. His manner of speaking also reminded me of my grandfather who grew up on a farm in Pineland, TX, which is not very far from where Lead Belly grew up in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Though my grandfather was a pastor, a God-fearing man, I felt a connection to Lead Belly through that. The older Southern accent and the slower manner of being drew me in. I liked to hear the fellow talk and hear the way he himself described his music. As a young black man interested in folk music, I was drawn to that, as well. I was never really a blues player. I liked that Lead Belly played a variety of songs and that he had some “weird” songs like the “Dog Latin Song” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.” I was blown away by the fact that the first disc didn’t even have Lead Belly playing guitar. He just sang and talked.
When I read the liner notes by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. later, I just loved the notion behind the recordings. Ramsey wanted to present Lead Belly in a way that the more sterile studio recordings couldn’t. With the fairly new technology of the tape recorder, Ramsey could catch Lead Belly with higher fidelity recording and he could just “let the tape run” creating an experience that was also different from the earlier Library of Congress recordings made by John and Alan Lomax who had to work within the confines of disc recording as well.
I began to collect Lead Belly recordings wherever I could find them and there were a lot. I mean A LOT of them. I stumbled across a three record set called “Leadbelly: The Library of Congress Recordings” on Elektra Records, compiled by the great archivist Lawrence Cohn, and I was on my way. That gave me a template to work with for black vernacular music. I could use Lead Belly’s drive and attack to form a sound of my own as I approached material. The Elektra Set was structured by song types and I wore down the section called “Square Dances, Sooky Jumps, Reels” where Lead Belly plays several dance tunes interspersed with his sketches of what Square Dances were like when he was growing up. I had no idea that I would be building my own career based on this music but when the opportunity came for me to form the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the notions laid out by Lead Belly helped inform the way I played guitar in the group.
In the Kennedy Center concert, Lead Belly at 125, I played a medley of two songs that came from that Elektra Records set. The songs were “Po’ Howard” and “Gwine Dig A Hole To Put The Devil In.”
I have spent so much time honoring Lead Belly everywhere I go that when the offer came down to host the show I was elated. Also, seeing the show was subtitled “A Tribute To An American Songster” I was doubly pleased because my own moniker “The American Songster” developed directly from the lessons I learned from Lead Belly’s music. It’s great to see that the term “songster” applied to Lead Belly has given people in the 21st Century a better understanding of what he was all about in a way that didn’t really jive with the world in Lead Belly’s day.
Something that struck me about all of the artists in the concert that night was that everyone respected the text and made a point to project that. As a songster, Lead Belly wasn’t a super flashy player. He has amazing licks, don’t get me wrong, but he played AND sang and the combination of the two is what his music is all about.
Valerie June was the first artist to perform and she picked two great numbers. She handled “Governor O.K. Allen” with excellent finger picking. A great way to start off. When she broke into “Ain’t Going Down To The Well No More” she had me on the edge of my seat. I could tell that she learned it from the Last Sessions record. She sang it acapella, like Lead Belly, and the whole crowd held its breath as she laid it down for them.
Lucinda Williams would mention later on in the night that one of the things that makes Lead Belly’s material so engaging is that it is open to interpretation. I even mentioned during the show that Lead Belly is best compared to the Rosetta Stone. You can learn the ancient language from him and then take it somewhere else if you so desire. And people have done just that from the moment he became a part of the American Folksong construct to now. His songs have been made into folk, art song, blues, jazz, gospel, rock, psychedelic rock, disco (yes disco) and on and on.
Next on the show, Shannon McNally and Billy Hector did a lovely job giving the songs they chose a sort of a honky tonk blues band sound. All the songs were classics, “You Can’t Lose Me, Cholly,” “Good Morning Blues,” “How Long, How Long,” “John Hardy,” “Backwater Blues,” and “Stewball”. How could you go wrong? Also, everyone in the crowd was in the club with us too. As I watched from the wings, I saw what I call the “Pete Seeger demographic” out there. Everyone from grandparents down to grandkids were singing along with the songs. When Billy Hector hit “Stewball” you could hear a resounding “mm hmm” call and response from the crowd. It was a great testament to Lead Belly’s legacy. Billy Hector slashed into “Backwater Blues” and brought on several big rounds of applause from the crowd with his ripping electric guitar solos.
Alvin “Youngblood” Hart came up next. Now, briefly jumping back to the early 2000s, Alvin was the first young, black country blues musician that I heard that played like the old records. Not so much sounding like the old records note for note but he had the concept of how to play it and make it live without watering down the material. I used to play his version of “Deep Blue Sea” on the guitar before I learned the banjo and reveled in his sound before I had any concept of what “black banjo” meant. His music was just great music. Having gotten to know Alvin over the past several years and even appearing with him in the movie The Great Debaters, it was such a pleasure to present him to the stage.
He was the single person who played Lead Belly’s style on 12-string guitar. He sat back in a wooden chair and gave the crowd a laugh when he mentioned that he had been a part of “the cult of Lead Belly” for about two decades. He then proceeded to make short work of “Silver City Bound,” “Ella Speed,” and “Alberta.” I watched on finding it surreal to be in that place watching him. He kept it real classy tearing up those classic bass runs and evoking the spirit of Lead Belly for the crowd, which included members of Lead Belly’s family.
Dan Zanes, with the help of Ashley Phillips, brought the lighter side of Lead Belly’s repertoire to the forefront when he played some of Lead Belly’s wonderful children’s songs. Many don’t know it but Lead Belly Sings for Children (Folkways) is probably Lead Belly’s best selling record. Pete also mentioned that Lead liked to play for children most of all. Dan and Ashley played “Grey Goose,” “Boll Weevil,” and a medley of “Red Bird/Polly Wee/More Yet/Skip To My Lou.” They got a nice duo sound switching off guitar licks and passing singing lines back and forth. Dan told everyone about how he (as a GRAMMY-Award winning children’s musician) formed the whole basis of his work on the works of Lead Belly.
We were all kindred spirits that night, but the last performer of the first set needed to be elevated above the rest. When I started working on the first draft of the script I would read as a host, Josh White, Jr.’s intro was a little spare. It mentioned his social activism and his connection to his father but I wanted to expand upon it a little bit. I knew that his father Josh White, Sr. had played with Lead Belly in New York City and I thought that would be a good way to start. This harkens back to my notion of “The Year of The Folksinger” in 2014. Part of the thinking behind that notion came from the idea that many of the old folkies, even in the folk community itself, get a bit of short shrift because they are not the “folk.” What I mean by that is that they are given the label of a “secondary source” and they are lesser or less celebrated than the people considered a “primary source.” Being his father’s son, I know that Josh White, Jr. cannot be unassociated with his dad but the man has lived many years performing and storytelling and that to me needs to be acknowledged.
Interestingly enough, when I was sitting down talking with Josh himself he mentioned that he had had a chance to meet Lead Belly and perform with him. Of course, the memories were vague because he was only 9 years old when he met him. Lead Belly was just one of his dad’s friends from the old days. Those friends of course included Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra and the man himself, Lead Belly. This was the tipping point. As the last artist of the first half of the show, I re-wrote my introduction to emphasize and elevate Josh White, Jr. because he had a connection to the music that no one else on stage could ever dream to have. He wasn’t just talking about Lead Belly, he was bringing a personal musical experience to the stage that made him the most important performer of the evening. He came from a family tradition of folk singing and storytelling that brought Lead Belly to that stage in person through Josh’s own vessel of song.
Needless to say, when I brought that to the crowd’s attention, they let him know how much they appreciated it. The whole room got on its feet and praised him. He was a bit misty-eyed coming up there. He then proceeded to play his family’s style of guitar playing with such grace that it made my evening. With one leg on a chair as his father taught him, he sang “House of the Rising Sun” and you could hear pin drop. He then ended out the show with “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and the classic “Bourgeois Blues” with all the original words. The songs have become more relevant than ever. Another standing ovation greeted him and we called the intermission.
The second half of the concert began with me playing my previously mentioned song set of “Po’ Howard” and “Gwine Dig A Hole To Put The Devil In.” I felt like I was floating on air. Never in all those years of busking, talking, hustling and speaking the truth about American folk music did I ever feel like I would be in our Nation’s Capitol representing Lead Belly and playing my banjo singing those songs. Lead Belly said that “Po’ Howard” was a song about “the first Negro fiddler after the slaves were freed” and I played it heavy like he did. And I felt the spirit of Pete Seeger, who was Lead Belly’s friend and I’d say the most important person who advocated Lead Belly’s music after the man himself had passed on. Pete was also one of the first people who made me and thousands of others want to pick up the banjo. He brought this African-derived instrument to the forefront and made it relevant. Having spent a decade of my life advocating the history of black banjo playing in America and bringing it to the forefront it was a powerful moment for me musically, ideologically, spiritually and personally.
After finishing my piece, I introduced Lead Belly’s great-great-niece, Terika Dean to the stage and she made some wonderful remarks about her famous ancestor. After the concert, she was giving out copies of the recent documentary Legend of Lead Belly. I was so glad to see that his descendants were involved and they were all so proud. This is a rare thing in the world of folk music.
The second half of the show featured two sets from two sets of heavy hitters in the music field.
The first was Lucinda Williams. As a native of Louisiana she took a delight in being a part of the show standing there alone with her guitar singing Lead Belly’s songs that she has known all of her life. Also being a Folkways artist early on in her career, she was very familiar with the material playing “In The Pines,” “Leaving Blues,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Jim Crow Blues”. She sang straight and true letting the material speak for itself.
Finally, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, accompanied by Buddy Miller and Viktor Krauss, played a dreamy set of Lead Belly songs that brought the audience to a state of euphoria. Lead Belly’s music was a foundation piece of the British Invasion, which of course Robert Plant was a part of in the group Led Zeppelin. Lead Belly’s recordings were among the first wave of folk blues to make its way across the ocean and influenced the singer Lonnie Donegan to record “Rock Island Line,” which became a huge hit sparking a jug band revolution in England known as skiffle music. When Robert and Alison took the stage Robert took a moment to mention Lonnie Donegan’s association with traditional jazz revivalists Ken Colyer and Chris Barber with whom Donegan was a featured vocalist. It was a full circle for me again as my first rock album was Led Zeppelin’s IV album.
Robert and Alison then proceed to wow the crowd with their renditions of “Out On The Western Plains,” “Can’t You Line ‘Em,” “Fannin Street,” “New York City,” and “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes.” The group’s highlight was their masterful rendition of “Gallis Pole,” which Robert of course recorded in the early ‘70s on Led Zeppelin III. Folks were shouting out their approval as they went reminding everyone that these two still are the king and queen of the scene. Buddy Miller (who also produced the Drops’ album Leaving Eden) as usual played tasteful electric guitar and floating on the reverberations of his electric mandolin with Viktor Krauss pumping the fuzz bass on his 6-string bass guitar. The juxtaposition of the music floating into space with the voices cutting so deep made for a wonderful way to round out the evening.
As the last notes rang out the crowd jumped up to a grand standing ovation. What else can you do at that point? We did what all folk song concerts do. We started a little sing-along to end the night. I called the whole cast out including Lead Belly’s family and we had a big folkie farewell with “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene,” which are quite possibly Lead Belly’s most enduring songs and the ones that people would know more than anything else. I had the good fortune to start them off and lead the crowd in making the Kennedy Center ring out with the voices of all these fans of the King of the 12-String Guitar.
I find it amazing how Lead Belly still endures. After more than a century after his birth his music still resounds in the minds of the American people and even more so now than ever. If folks have never heard of the man himself they at least know his songs. He is the bedrock of our nation’s folk music tradition. All the way back to that young man going to college hearing Lead Belly’s voice through the speakers I was thrilled and honored to have given this wonderful musician and personality a dignified presentation of his work in the 21st century. Here’s to 125 years and to many more, Lead Belly!
With sincerest regards,
The American Songster
April 29th, 2015