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Bringing Lead Belly to life

Storytelling Arts of Indiana to honor folk legend
Posted at 1:35 PM, Apr 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-22 20:24:33-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Who was Lead Belly? "That's not necessarily an easy question to answer," said the man who knows the blues and folk music icon as well as anyone living today.

Rev. Robert Jones helps bring the story and the music of Lead Belly to life in his one-person show "Lead Belly: An American Legend." The blues guitarist from Detroit is bringing the show to the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center on Saturday, April 23.

The songs popularized by Lead Belly are now ingrained in America, even if you don't know where they came from; "Goodnight Irene", "Skip to My Lou", "John Henry", "Midnight Special", "Black Betty." How he came to be identified with those songs, and how he became one of the country's first traveling troubadours is an "only in America" story.

"Lead Belly was born Huddie Ledbetter, the son of a hard-working farmer and his wife," Rev. Jones recounted ahead of visit to Indy. Lead Belly grew up in segregated Louisiana in the late 1800's, and he was already a working musician by the time he quit school in 8th grade.

Trouble with the law would soon follow. "He did four stints in prison," Jones said. "He escaped once with bullets literally whizzing by his ears. He sang his way out of prison twice. When the governor came through and was granting pardons - which he had never granted a pardon to anyone before Lead Belly. Lead Belly composed a song that basically said 'Governor, if I had you like you had me, I get up in the morning and set you free. On his last day in office (in 1925), Gov. Pat Neff (D-Texas) pardoned him."

Another prison term would help lead to national fame for the man who soon billed himself as the 'King of the 12-String Guitar.' Two folklorists — John and Alan Lomax — were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress when they came across Lead Belly in 1930, doing time at the infamous Angola Farm prison plantation in Louisiana. After his release, the Lomaxes brought Lead Belly to New York, where he began to gain fame for performances in clubs and on college campuses. "He ends up at places like the Cafe Au Go Go.... and he ended up being the first African-American to perform this type of music in France."

"It's amazing — the ups and downs in his life, and we try to hit on that in the time that we have (in the show) to talk about the useful contributions, but also the amazing complexity of his life."

Rev. Robert Jones presents "Lead Belly: An American Legend" Saturday April 23 starting at 7:00pm at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center. Click here for information on how to get tickets.