“‘No Lead Belly, No Beatles,'” Grammy-winning singer Tom Chapin said, quoting George Harrison outside of the building at 414 East 10th Street. There were murmurs of approval from the crowd that, despite the freezing cold, gathered out front of this Alphabet City building today to celebrate the unveiling of a commemorative plaque that now hangs on the one-time home of the great folk and blues musician. Through stories and song, musicians, longtime fans, and historians honored Lead Belly on his birthday outside the singer’s old apartment. (That’s right, today wasn’t just David Bowie Day.)
Had the native Louisianan– a 12-string guitarist, singer, and multi-instrumentalist– made a deal with the devil and lived this long, he’d be 128 years old. While a stint locked up at Angola Prison, booze, and promiscuity definitely lend to good songwriting, these traits haven’t proven to help longevity just yet.
When I arrived at the building, I was greeted by Ana Ruiz, a resident there of 60 years. She recalled when she first learned that Lead Belly had lived there– a few people were gathered outside taking photos. She wasn’t sure what apartment he’d lived in until John Reynolds (a Lead Belly archivist and historian) approached her and asked if she lived in unit #26– “on the fifth floor,” he clarified.
“I used to live there,” she said.
Later, Reynolds would recall for the crowd how he’d once visited apartment #26. He’d discovered the music of Lead Belly in the early ’50s, while he was still in high school, and wanting to learn more, he tracked down the singer’s wife, Martha Promise Ledbetter.
“We talked on the phone a few times, and she invited me to come down,” Reynolds remembered. “The first time I came here, this building was rather seedy looking. And the super’s door, I thought there were bullet holes in [it].” But he said that Martha “greeted me warmly,” whipped up some tea, and they started talking. “At one point she went into her room to get Lead Belly’s guitar, which she kept in a big footlocker beside her bed, I noticed there was a big picture of Jackie Robinson over the bed, and there were pictures of Lead Belly and Martha all over the place.”
Ana Ruiz moved out of that same apartment after 2000, when the building became a co-op and #26 was converted into a three-bedroom. For the longest time, Ruiz said, she had no idea a “famous person” had resided here.
Actually, Lead Belly wasn’t all that well-known in his lifetime, noted Stephen Petrus, co-author of Folk City: New York City and the Folk Music Revival. “He didn’t sell many records in his own lifetime, he only became famous in retrospective,” the historian explained at the unveiling.
Huddie William Ledbetter was born January 20, 1889 on a plantation in Mooringsport, Louisiana. The blues singer moved to New York City in the late 1930s. “Lead Belly wasn’t a native New Yorker but he sure became one in the late 1930s, 1940s,” Petrus told the crowd. He settled down at this East Village apartment with his wife, Martha, and quickly developed an “intimate connection with the budding folk scene in the city,” Petrus explained. He hung out with the likes of Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. Lead Belly became something of a local celebrity after scoring two radio shows, one at WNYC and another at CBS.
“He helped introduce New York audiences to the music of the Deep South, to cowboy ballads, labor songs, songs about race and politics,” Petrus said. “I think in doing so, he really helped combat racist stereotypes,” instead impressing upon New Yorkers “very rich African-American cultural and musical traditions.”
People were taken with Lead Belly and his incredible story of survival and redemption. In 1918, he was convicted and sent to a Texas prison for killing Will Stafford. According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell, co-authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, the details of the murder remain fuzzy to this day, but based on a series of recollections from witnesses and Lead Belly himself, on the night of the murder he and Will were fighting over a “tantalizing new woman,” while on their way “to dance at the Red River bottoms.”
While behind bars, Lead Belly was exposed to prison folk songs, and ended up writing a song of his own dedicated to Texas Governor Pat Neff, who was “delighted,” as The Life and Legend recounts. The Governor was so taken by Lead Belly that he granted the singer a “full pardon” in January 1925. Lead Belly was subsequently released from Sugarland Penitentiary.
But the blues singer was known for his temper, which once again got him in trouble with the law when, back in Louisiana, he slashed a white man named Dick Ellet. The victim survived, but Lead Belly was once again sent to prison. He served his time doing hard labor at the notoriously rough Angola prison, where he was later “discovered” by John and Alan Lomax, a father-son team of folk music archivists.
By the time Lead Belly ended up in New York City in 1935, those who met him were fascinated by this “two-time murderer who sang his way out of prison,” as the musician Tom Chapin described him at the plaque unveiling. Chapin has participated in Lead Belly Fest, the traveling tribute concert that organized the plaque placing.
The songs Lead Belly performed and the ones he wrote about breakups, cheating, boozing, prison, and generally being a badass have been hugely influential. Some of them became folk standards (“Goodnight Irene,” “House of the Rising Sun”) and countless others have been performed by musicians of all backgrounds. Nirvana covered “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” during their classic MTV Unplugged set and “Black Betty” has seen several adaptations, from the hit cover by Ram Jam to the Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds adaptation (complete with the Lead Belly clap). Heck, there’s even a Lower East Side oyster bar called The Leadbelly (an alternate spelling of his name).
With his impeccable storytelling capacity and catchy riffs that combine self-deprecation and hope, the blues singer has inspired countless musicians (yep, including the Beatles, as Chapin pointed out) and, indisputably, helped spawn an entire genre of music– rock n’ roll. Hence his induction in to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lead Belly died on December 6, 1949 at Bellevue Hospital, but as the commemoration reminded us, his songs will live on probably forever. To close the ceremony, the presenters joined in and sang:
“Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I have a great notion
to jump into the river and drown
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams.”