Imagine, if you can, a record producer coming to his boss with an idea for a new album; a collection of children’s songs by a black man who has been imprisoned several times, once for killing a relative in a fight over a woman, a second time for attempted murder of a white man. The swiftness with which such a proposal and its author would be dispatched today would set a land speed record for rejection of cockamamie ideas.
But such an album–“Lead Belly Sings for Children”–was actually made, back in the 1940s, and it is still available today. “Lead Belly” is Huddie (pronounced “HUGH-dee”) William Ledbetter, a protean musician who was a walking encyclopedia of the music of the American folk of his time and before, which is different from what you hear performed in coffee houses and on college campuses today as “folk music.”
Lead Belly was born in 1888 in an area of Louisiana that was part Cajun and part black. He took to music early, learning to play his uncle’s guitar and the “windjammer,” a small accordion. By the age of twelve or thirteen he was performing at “sukey jumps” and breakdowns, Saturday night revels held in cabins and little, low-ceilinged dance halls.
Thus even though he served an apprenticeship as traveling companion to Blind Lemon Jefferson, a popular Texas blues singer of the 20′s, Lead Belly was an entertainer first and a blues man second. He learned a lot of songs–including children’s songs–because the more varied a selection a musician offers, the more gigs he’ll get, and Lead Belly was not above playing a birthday party. My guess is he’d be amused by latter-day white bluesmen who make more at a single gig than he did in his lifetime, and who would scoff at the suggestion that they play “Skip to My Lou” for a bunch of toddlers. Lead Belly was badder than they’ll ever be, and at the same time gentler.
In addition to the blues and children’s songs, Lead Belly sang gospel, prison and chain gang songs, and songs about workers ranging from cowboys to sailors. He wrote and performed songs about noteworthy figures of his time including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes–the itinerant minstrel as talk radio and cable news.
Lead Belly sang about race, but in more dimensions than just black vs. white. He also noted the status gradations recognized by those who share African descent but are of different shades; “Yellow Gal”–a common term for a light-skinned woman of color that has fallen into disuse–recounts how “papa got in trouble over a yellow gal.” Lead Belly was himself dark-skinned, and perhaps had been turned down by a lighter shade of gal in his time.
While he was adopted by leftists of his time, he was apolitical and supported moderate Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie against Roosevelt, a not uncommon sympathy among blacks of the time since the Democratic Party was the principal obstacle to anti-lynching and civil rights laws. He could sing of racial slights he suffered in Washington, D.C. in “Bourgeois Blues,” but in his life he was not a convincing counter-argument to bourgeois values; until he married Martha Promise and settled down, he drank away what little money he made from music, abandoned more than one wife and their children, and was quick to anger and never backed down from a fight. In short, not a model for young children to look up to.
And yet his music works on different planes. Take “Goodnight, Irene,” a staple of campfires and sing-a-longs, and the source of the title for Ken Kesey’s second novel “Sometimes a Great Notion.” It is sung today as a lullaby and an innocent love song, but there is a dark side to the lyrics Lead Belly actually wrote and sang; the singer is, after all, a married male serenading a younger woman, who tells him to “go home to his wife and family.” The last line of the chorus–sung by folkies as “I’ll see you in my dreams”–as sung by Lead Belly is “I’ll get you in my dreams.” Two verses recount the male singer’s suicidal thoughts once he is turned down by Irene; he will “take morphine and die” and “jump in the river and drown.”
Lead Belly, like Walt Whitman, contradicted himself, and contained multitudes. He was guilty of many crimes, but never lost the sense of innocence that allowed him to make children laugh, sing and clap their hands.