A look at the unsung sides of the legendary Leadbelly

January 21, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

People who love the blues always desire and often demand that their heroes stand up as the real thing. But the musicians just want to be themselves.

"The Life and Legend of Leadbelly" is as human a portrait of the strong, determined and complicated man born Huddie Ledbetter exists today.

With all due respect to the King of Rock and Roll, there is no greater legend of American music than Leadbelly.

It is very hard to describe the adventures of a legend in a way that reveals a true soul beneath layers of myths upon lies upon hype.

This book reaches down to the bone and back to the fields to find "the first authentic traditional singer to go before the American people and make them aware of the rich vein of folk music that lay just beneath . . . the hard bedrock of 20th century industrial society."

Aside from Leadbelly's music, which needs nothing for support or explanation except a pair of willing ears, this straightforward biography is all you need to feel connected to the spirit that gave the world "Goodnight Irene."

The authors also do a fine job of mapping racial preconceptions that Leadbelly was expected to fulfill for white audiences. The stereotypes read almost like fantasy, so badly did the ignorant want to believe them.

"Too many photos of Leadbelly show him as a big, rough man with an ugly scar on his neck, and too many casual fans thought of him as a loud, boisterous singer," the authors write. "Yet he had a rather high, gentle voice when he talked and was capable of singing with great expression and restraint. He could sound at times like an Irish tenor, at times like a radio crooner, at times like a child on the playground . . ."

Huddie Ledbetter was born in 1888 to sharecroppers in Caddo, La., and died a legend in 1949 in New York. He saw himself as a popular entertainer, but he was marketed as an artifact.

He wanted to dress well and entertain in all of the rich genres at his command: blues, ballads, gospel, work songs, field chants, music from the hills, square dance, protest anthems, cowboy songs and swank nightclub music reminiscent of Nat King Cole.

The singer resented attempts by his one-time manager, folklorist John Lomax, to dramatize his shows by making Leadbelly wear his old prison clothes. Much of this book addresses the love-hate relationship between the pair.

Much of the rest of it deals with Leadbelly's misunderstood associations with labor and socialist movements in New York. But the best of it quotes people such people as Fred Hellerman of the Weavers, the group that scored a monster commercial hit with "Irene" the year after Leadbelly's death.

"He really liked kids, he really related to them and they really related to him," Hellerman said. "He was something they viscerally understood. It was a wonderful thing to watch him with kids."


Title: "The Life and Legend of Leadbelly."

Author: Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell.

Publisher: HarperCollins.

Length, price: 333 pages, $25.

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