On August 1, 1934, an African-American musician named Huddie Ledbetter, who was doing time for attempted murder, was released from prison. He claimed that he owed his freedom to a father-and-son team so impressed with his art that they wanted to share it with the world. Ledbetter was better known as Lead Belly; the duo was John Lomax, an erstwhile academic from Austin, Texas, who obsessively documented American folklore with scholarly precision, and his son Alan, phlegmatic, neurotic and, in his youth, constantly trailing his dad, whose credentials were somewhat more legit. If, as Wallace Stevens wrote, death is the mother of beauty, Lead Belly married death and beauty all the way to stardom, a mother of a different kind. Nicknamed for a bullet lodged in his stomach, he probed brutal wounds in his music; his muse was a hard life, mellifluously rendered. He was one of the first musicians to make the journey from the joint to the charts, and he probably wouldn’t have become famous if the Lomaxes hadn’t stuck a microphone in his cell and let him strum and wail.
The Lomaxes found Lead Belly in Angola Prison, in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. With the sponsorship of the Library of Congress and a portable disc recorder weighing hundreds of pounds, they had been wending their way through Southern prisons, searching for old songs by vocalists and musicians who were unacquainted with the recent crazes for blues and jazz. It was American Idol meets I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, except that with Lead Belly the Lomaxes chose a bona fide musician, some of whose gems, like “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene,” would become huge hits for others. Nirvana ended their 1993 appearance on MTV Unplugged with a rendition of “In the Pines” (which they called “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”); in his introduction to the song, Kurt Cobain claimed that Lead Belly was his favorite performer and joked about how he had failed to persuade David Geffen to buy him Lead Belly’s guitar.
Alan Lomax’s field recordings of African-American work songs, spirituals and white working-class cowboy songs set the standard for the notion of folk authenticity that became gospel during the 1960s folk revival, which included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez among the younger generation and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger among the statesmen. Lomax was the first to record Guthrie and Seeger (the latter was the son of Harvard musicologist Charles Seeger). In the early ’40s Pete was Lomax’s assistant at the Library of Congress, doing archival grunt work that paid dividends to Harry Smith years later when he drew on it to compile the three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music for Folkways Records. Though his musical tastes earned him the reputation of being a purist, Lomax liked to mix things up, once the undiluted representation of his discoveries had been well documented. He approved when the bluesmen and cowboys had a bastard and called it rock and roll. Unlike the folkies who worshiped his recordings, he had no problem with Dylan going electric.
Going electric was one thing, plagiarism another. When Lomax was living in London, he was not only surprised to hear Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line” as a skiffle hit for Lonnie Donegan but disturbed to see Donegan’s name listed as the composer. The Quarrymen, the earliest incarnation of the Beatles, were too young to worry about such things, sufficiently inspired by Donegan and the skiffle craze to make it to the toppermost of the poppermost. The success of Donegan’s cover was proof that Lomax had given musicians the means to cultivate folkloric influences beyond their native ones. (Donegan went to the offensive extreme of copyrighting Lead Belly’s music as his own.) Alan Lomax had paved a mighty good road, and because he crisscrossed the South more than any other part of the country, the region is still—whether in the guise of the white cowboy or the black preacher, the laborer or the prisoner, the home of the most imitated American musical vernacular—the land where the blues began, as Lomax would put it in a book title. Years ago, I knew some working-class whites in rural Vermont who were listening to a band called Alabama; I felt certain that the same demographic in Alabama would never listen to a band called Vermont.