Friday 11 August 2023


Lead Belly was a man of contradiction and complexity. It was hard to truly know him, said the people who tried, and it was next to impossible to place him in a particular music style or form and have him remain there for long. He was a folk musician who also played the blues. He knew his share of work songs and field hollers, having sung them while picking cotton and doing farm chores. He learned prison songs while incarcerated, and he sang them like a man who had seen life’s underbelly.

Spirituals and gospel tunes came naturally to him. He gave new life to old ballads whose origins were buried in the past. He could sing children’s songs when kids were present. And at house parties and local fish fries, if someone wanted to hear a few standards or a pop hit of the day, he could sing and play them too.

Lead Belly moved through American music genres and song circles naturally and effortlessly, never seeing the boundaries and categories that were created for commodity’s sake by men with bow ties and clean suits. He was the very definition of a “songster,” an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer and recording artist who never quite realized just what an American music treasure he had become in his life.

Lead Belly possessed a powerful, virile voice, yet he could be remarkably gentle at times. In the song “Bring Me a Little Water, Silvy,” a plea for a simple sip of water turns into a touching display of human emotion from a calloused field worker who is all but immune to such things as compassion and dignity. “Irene,” one of Lead Belly’s best-known songs, is a beautiful lullaby sung by a man who probably slept half his life with one eye open. While most other musicians of his kind played a 6-string guitar, Lead Belly played that 12-string Stella much of the time, its rich, resonant sound competing with his strong, arching voice through every step of a song.

Woody Guthrie described it this way: “His guitar was not like a friend of his, not like a woman, not like some of the kids, not like a man, you know. But it was a thing that would cause people to walk over to where he is, a thing that made sounds that gave his own words richer sounds, and would give him his way to show his people around him all of the things that he felt inside and out.”


Photo by Gordon Coster

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