Review of "Lead Belly Sings for Children", April 11, 1999
by Scott Alarik, correspondent for the Boston Globe
Today, Huddie ''Lead Belly''
Ledbetter (1888-1949) is regarded
as one of America's greatest and most
influential folk musicians. His brilliant
guitar playing, marked by driving bass
lines set against quicksilver treble
fingerpicking, helped popularize both the
Texas blues style and the 12-string guitar.
Even those who no longer remember his name
know his songs and the songs he made
famous, among them ''Goodnight, Irene''
''Cotton Fields,'' ''Midnight Special,''
''Take This Hammer,'' ''Pick a Bale of
Cotton,'' and ''Rock Island Line.''
Yet we almost lost his most precious gift
to American musical culture, the hundreds
of traditional African-American songs he
picked up along the hard roads of his
fiery, myth-enshrouded, and sometimes
violent life. The groundbreaking little
1941 album called ''Play Parties in Song
and Dance as Sung by Lead Belly'' opened up
new career vistas for Ledbetter, however,
through which nearly his entire body of
songs was eventually recorded.
The humbly produced six-song record had an
equally powerful effect on the man who
released it, Moe Asch, who went on to found
Folkways Records, the single most prolific
and arguably the most important of American
It has been re-released in its entirety on
a new Smithsonian Folkways CD, ''Lead Belly
Sings for Children.'' (His moniker has also
been rendered as Leadbelly, but scholars in
recent years have reverted to writing the
nickname in two words, as he preferred it.)
Also included in the 62-minute disc are a
live children's music concert Ledbetter did
in 1945, some of his lively radio
appearances with such guests as Kid Ory and
the Golden Gate Quartet, and several
stirring solo versions of Ledbetter's
It is a remarkable record, musically superb
and deeply informative, both in the
intimate glimpse it reveals of Ledbetter
the performer and in the knowledge he
conveys about the roots of the songs he
sings. It is striking how utterly
comfortable he seems around children,
talking to them without condescension,
explaining honestly and movingly the hard
times from which the songs came.
''This really isn't a children's record in
the conventional sense,'' said Smithsonian
Folkways archivist Jeff Place, whose savvy
liner notes add immeasurably to the CD.
''What Lead Belly did was present American
folk songs for children, showing them and
teaching them about spirituals and blues
and work songs, not just the the usual
play-party and ditty songs you associate
with children's music.''
By 1941, Ledbetter's music had been
obscured by his legend. He was a minor star
who had recorded for Columbia, Stinson, and
RCA's race label, Bluebird. But he was
tragically stereotyped by his infamous
past. He had gone to prison twice for
fights that resulted in the death and
near-death of his opponents.
Ledbetter was discovered in Louisiana's
Angola Prison in 1933 by folklorists John
and Alan Lomax, who went there to collect
prison songs. Upon his release in 1934, he
came to New York, where, first under the
sponsorship of the Lomaxes and later on his
own, he found himself billed as ''the
Savage Singer from the Swamplands,'' and
was often made to perform in prison garb.
Record companies regarded him either
exclusively as a blues artist or as a
primitive novelty act. The genius beneath
the legend was in danger of being lost
Enter Asch, who was introduced to Ledbetter
by Broadway producer Sy Rady. At the time,
Asch was a recording engineer who had
released a few records of local Jewish
music. He loved Ledbetter's music, but
despised the way he was being presented.
Smithsonian Folkways director Tony Seeger
said, ''Moe thought Lead Belly was being
stereotyped, presented with a very limited
view of his repertoire and this single
facet of his history. And he felt Lead
Belly was an intellectual, just like
In a brilliant marketing stroke, Asch
confronted the stereotypes head-on,
determined to humanize Ledbetter to the
public. He had spent a delightful afternoon
listening to Ledbetter perform for
children, probably at the progressive
Little Red School House in New York. By
recording these gentle, playful songs, he
hoped to force the music world to see this
man for the musical genius and genuine folk
scholar he was.
What he did not expect was to have a hit.
Shortly after its 1941 release, however,
gossip columnist Walter Winchell smeared
the obscure producer for recording a
convicted murderer singing children's
songs. The notoriety made the album a
Seeger said, ''This record really made
Asch. It turned him from a small provider
of specialized music into a record company.
It sold well enough for him to have the
money to make other recordings, and he
began to issue music from other parts of
the world, and other folk communities here.
He started recording Woody Guthrie, my
uncle Pete Seeger, and other folk
musicians, which led to his founding
Folkways Records in 1948.''
It also helped Ledbetter break the shackles
of his pigeonholed career. From then on, he
was seen even by major labels as more than
a novelty. He continued to record on
occasion for big labels, but returned to
Asch over and over to preserve his
encyclopedic treasury of African-American
folk music, among the most extensive and
brilliantly performed traditional song
collections ever recorded.
The 1941 cuts are digitally remastered with
astonishing clarity, showcasing Ledbetter
in superb form, performing bright
children's tunes as well as fiery blues and
But it is the live recordings that provide
the best glimpses of the man behind the
legend. He clearly wants to show children
something of the hard truths that shimmer
beneath the bouncy melodies and clever
lyrics. His explanation of the blues, how
it is rooted in hard times, is wonderfully
crafted for young listeners. He follows it
with an equally ingenious musical essay, in
which he asks them first to simply feel the
blues through his eloquent guitar playing,
then sings a simple lonesome blues any
child could empathize with.
In another cut, he sings a lovely medley of
hymns from various faiths, making the point
that, as he puts it, ''We're all in the
same boat, brother.'' In the CD's most
charming moment, he sings his classic work
song ''Take This Hammer,'' explaining how
the exhaled ''Whah!'' at the end of each
line accompanied the driving of the hammer.
He then asks them to join in, and the
children enthusiastically pant along until
giggles overtake them - and very nearly
Ledbetter. You can fairly see them swinging
their imaginary hammers to his powerful
Seeger said, ''Children's music today is
often made up of infantile ditties that
don't address terribly serious issues, or
do so in a rather contrived way. But here
he is singing songs about life and death
and hard work and insect plagues driving
farmers out of their homes, really tough
stuff. This record is kind of a revaluation
in how you can relate to kids. They may be
small, but you can treat them straight on,
talk straight at them and present your
music the way it really is, and they go
right along. You don't have to create a
purple dinosaur or a green bumblebee; you
can just be a real person and sing real
songs and let them learn about life.''
This story ran on page N04 of the Boston
Globe on 04/11/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.