When he was discovered in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison farm back in 1933, little did Lead Belly know that his music would alter the course of his destiny and change the life of the architects of his success, famed folklorists John and Alan Lomax. More to the point, there was no way Lead Belly could have realized that he would become the most famous Black folksinger ever, bringing the attention of millions to the power of the African-American song, well outside the boundaries of his own community, as artists as diverse as Nirvana, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Waits or Bob Dylan embraced his repertoire.
Huddie Ledbetter—Lead Belly’s real name—owes this extraordinary status to his uncanny talent for bridging gaps. Born in the Deep South in the late 1880s, he was a living link between the end of slavery and the height of the sharecrop system that literally disenfranchised African-Americans during the first half of the 20th Century; between the false hopes engendered by the Emancipation Proclamation and the despair spawned by Segregation; between the era of the itinerant songsters and the rise of the blues troubadours, at the time when he was making his apprenticeship as a teenage street musician. In the process, Lead Belly launched almost by himself the folk boom that took by storm the white New York literati, and familiarized Europeans with the blues, triggering a revival that eventually brought about rock music through the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Although it is not widely known, he was also the very first rural blues artist to grace Europeans stages in 1949, shortly before his death at the age of 61.
By paying homage to Lead Belly on these live and studio renditions of the old master’s gold songs, blues great Eric Bibb and prolific harmonica player Jean-Jacques Milteau give us much more than a celebration of the folksinger’s rich musical heritage. Establishing a living link between the New World and the Old Continent, they showcase the universality and timelessness of Lead Belly’s message. It is no accident that this recording kicks off with “Grey Goose,” a poetic depiction of social ostracism that finds an echo today with the African and Middle-Eastern migrants who cross the Mediterranean by the thousands on makeshift rafts. The same could be said of the prison song “Midnight Special,” still valid today when African-American males make up 40% of inmates in the US when they represent a mere 13% of the American population, of “The Titanic” with its clear reference to racism that rings appallingly true in the wake of Charleston and Ferguson.
Yet, the most topical songs of all might well be “Bourgeois Blues.” An open denunciation of the color caste system that prevailed in the nation’s capital when Lead Belly recorded it in 1938, it proves that the presence of a Black president in the White House hasn’t really turned the tables in a world of discrimination that’s always prompt to oppress the poor and the voiceless.
Spicing up Lead Belly’s repertoire with a handful of their own compositions, Eric and JJ pick up where the original songster left off, addressing everyday issues with a freshness, candor and poetic sense that contribute to the circulation of a message of peace, hope, tolerance, and non-violence. As a result, their rare musical understanding makes Lead Belly’s Gold one of the most exciting recordings of their respective careers.
Liberty, Dignity, Fraternity…
Lead Belly could have improved the slogan of France—a country he visited shortly before his death—in such a way. For lack of true equality between the poor, illiterate Black individual that he was and the fluctuating entourage drawn by his talent over the years, he fought his whole life for dignity as a human being and, even more so, as an artist.
Liberty probably was young Huddie Ledbetter’s original aspiration, as he toiled in the segregated South of the turn of the 20th Century. No doubt, the murderous fights that led to his incarceration on several occasions were the result of his injured dignity. Endowed with an uncommon talent, he generated around his person a sense of fraternity that awarded him the protective help of the Lomaxes, favored artistic collaborations with Pete Seeger and other liberals in the 1940’s, aroused the empathy of the young audiences he loved to entertain.
Dignity stands out in this humanistic trilogy as Lead Belly’s number one goal: the dignity of being considered an artist first and foremost, regardless of the color of his skin or his judicial past. His repertoire reflects his gift as a storyteller and entertainer; it also reveals his need to testify. The depth of human feelings and sufferings, religion, social life, anecdotes… it seems his musical chronicles encompassed all topics. As is clear when listening to his live recordings, Lead Belly was wont to comment the tunes he sang, much like a journalist.
Yet his main claim to fame is linked to his personal power and conviction as an interpreter. No one is left unscathed by Lead Belly’s voice, by the sound of his guitar, both distant and familiar. Only great artists showcase such timelessness while chronicling their times.
Working with Eric on this project has been a real treat. Each and every song came to us in a natural and spontaneous way. The majority of titles present on this album were recorded live, with or without an audience, in order to preserve this freshness. A thousand thanks to Philippe Langlois for providing the original idea and bringing us together, I’m looking forward to more stage performances around this project. – J.J. Milteau
Lead Belly & me
It’s hard to remember when I first heard Lead Belly’s music because, somehow, he’s always been around. Most likely, I heard recordings of others (The Weavers & Woody Guthrie) singing songs from his huge repertoire before hearing his actual voice.
In any case, I have an early memory from the mid 1950’s of listening to a recording of Lead Belly singing a children’s song, “Ha Ha This-a-way”. At that time, my dad, Leon, was beginning to make his name known in New York City folk music circles.
He recently told me he remembered hearing Lead Belly perform at The Village Vanguard in the late 1940’s. So, the soundtrack of my childhood included more than a few of the great bard’s songs. The sound of his 12-string guitar is part of my DNA.
What I hear now, when I listen to Lead Belly’s recordings & youtube clips, and what I must have sensed when I was a boy, is the man’s personal power & independence. His sound made it clear that he was his own man. The fatalism and resignation that I heard later in the voices of many of my pre-war blues heroes was missing in Lead Belly. He was way ahead of his time. The path he cut through a world that conspired to rob him of his humanity, dignity & manhood was a personal triumph that will inspire for generations to come. – Eric Bibb
Lead Belly was a human jukebox. He knew hundreds of songs that he’d either heard somewhere & adapted or written himself. Authorship of many of the songs he sang has long been a controversial topic of heated debate in folk music circles. What is clear is this: If not for Lead Belly, and the collectors who first recorded him, we might never have heard many of these timeless songs.
Jean-Jacques & I chose songs from Lead Belly’s vast repertoire that we could make our own. We wanted to pay homage to not only a great musician, but to the rich tradition he embodied. Staying pretty close to his renditions, we had a lot of fun collaborating on these new arrangements. Working with Larry was, as always, a treat.
Lead Belly spread his music by performing live in front of mostly smaller audiences and recordings.
we decided that the energy from a small, enthusiastic audience would help us dive deep into the songs. Fortunately, our good friend Stéphane at The Sunset, a famous Parisian jazz club, was happy to make his venue available. Many thanks to all who were there! This live energy inspired us to dive deep into the songs. We’d like to thank all of you who were there! We also took a few songs from those club recordings and augmented them in the studio, as well as including some original, new studio tracks. The result is this album, Lead Belly’s Gold.
Lead Belly’s Gold
Grey Goose (Traditional)
When That Train Comes Along (Traditional) / Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Traditional) On A Monday (Ledbetter Huddie – Folkways Music Publishers Inc)
The House Of The Rising Sun (Traditional)
Midnight Special (Ledbetter Huddie, Lomax Alan, Lomax John A Sr – Folkways Music Publishers Inc) Bring A Little Water, Sylvie (Traditional)
Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Ledbetter Huddie – Folkways Music Publishers Inc) When I Get To Dallas (JJ Milteau-Eric Bibb -Memphis Music)
Pick a Bale of Cotton (Traditional)
Good Night, Irene (Ledbetter Huddie, Lomax John A Sr – Ludlow Music Inc)
Rock Island Line (Traditional)
Bourgeois Blues (Ledbetter Huddie, Lomax Alan, Lomax John A Sr – Folkways Music Publishers Inc)
Chauffeur Blues (Eric Bibb – BMG-Chrysalis)
Titanic (Ledbetter Huddie – Folkways Music Publishers Inc)
Swimmin’ In A River Of Song (Eric Bibb – BMG-Chrysalis)