New Lead Belly Collection Is Smithsonian Curator’s Labor of Love
Near the beginning of the fifth disc of the new Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection box set, the pioneering jazz writer Fred Ramsey puts on a record. Ramsey, a friend of Lead Belly's, is at Lead Belly's apartment in the East Village in New York City. The two are hanging out and talking about mutual friends and music as Ramsey's reel-to-reel tape recorder runs in the background.
When Ramsey puts on the record, Bessie Smith's 1929 recording of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," the conversation stops. Lead Belly, who one can imagine is leaning back in his chair, starts singing along, word for word. It's 1948, and he's 60 years old -- in a year, he'll be dead of Lou Gehrig's disease -- and his voice is a little strained, but still had all the same force behind it; a voice that led chain gangs in Louisiana and Texas, that sang to white audiences at Carnegie Hall, that seemed to listen even as it sang. In Lead Belly's living room, he and Bessie Smith sang together across time, a sublime moment captured forever on Fred Ramsey's reel-to-reel recorder.
Jeff Place may have been the first person to hear this transcendent recording in the 64 years since it was first captured. He was in his office at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, listening back to Ramsey's old recordings, when it jumped out at him from the speakers. "Ramsey is playing 78s for Lead Belly and they're commenting on them, the way you or I might sit around a friend's house listening to records," says Place. He was listening to the long tape "and that one came on in the middle of [the recording]. And I was like, 'Whoa -- check this out. That was the really crazy one.'" Somehow, after 30 years of working through Lead Belly's catalog, Place had found something entirely new.
In different ways, Lead Belly, the folk heavyweight who even in his own time was badly misunderstood, is humanized.
This is the experience of listening to the Smithsonian box set, which Place, the curator and archivist of the institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, compiled. In different ways, Lead Belly, the folk heavyweight who even in his own time was badly misunderstood, is humanized, captured in moments of discovery or revery, displaying his true genius -- his ability to interpret and distill the songs of America in his distinctive tenor, to be at once supremely unique and a kind of national speakerbox. Through this collection of radio archives, living room recordings and record label releases, Lead Belly's prodigious talent comes into focus.
Like Lead Belly himself, Place is an accomplished listener. For almost 30 years, Place has held the keys to the folk recordings at theSmithsonian, maintaining archives and curating the collection by producing the Smithsonian Folkways label's official releases. Since 1987, Place has produced 50 records, with a handful more in the works. He says the Smithsonian has released about 10-percent of the folk music in its archives -- to listen to the rest, you have to come visit the archives in person.
There are surely few people in the world who know Lead Belly's music better than Place. He was the one who originally went through the glass discs that once housed Lead Belly's original recordings and digitized them, starting in 1988. It took him 10 years.
"I heard every outtake; every little snippet."
In the end, he heard "hundreds and hundreds of takes." Still, when he started working on this box set a few years ago -- part of a planned trilogy that includes the Woody Guthrie at 100 set from 2012 and an upcoming Pete Seeger box -- he had a lot of listening to do. "I listened to it all again," he says. "In my office, I had the CD player playing constantly, listening to CD rips of the tracks we have here. Day in and day out. And then every so often something would come on and I would go, 'That's cool -- what is that?'"
This set, as well as the Guthrie collection, are to be Place's major legacy, as well as his gift to the world. He's a man who holds music history -- these fragile, powerful pieces of art -- in his hands. Or, rather, on the reels of tape scattered across his desk in Washington. "I live in a bubble, where I'm surrounded by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie and all that stuff day in and day out, so it's never far from what I'm thinking about. Part of this project is that this is my 28th year and I've been here a long time. At some point in the future, I'll probably retire, right? I've been amassing all this information about these guys in my head for all these decades, it just makes sense for me to do one last download before I'm headed out."
The sprawling yet orderly composition of Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection is Place's doing. It includes five CDs: The first is a sort of greatest hits collection, including Lead Belly's best known songs, like "Midnight Special" and "Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)." Discs two and three feature deeper cuts, a mix of children's songs and tin pan alley tunes and cowboy ballads that might surprise casual Lead Belly fans.
Discs four and five are the real highlights. Disc four consists of previously unreleased radio recordings, which show off Lead Belly in a freewheeling, relaxed environment. (Place actually thinks some of the songs were made up on the spot.) Disc five contains the Ramsey home recordings, which weren't limited to the length of 78RPM commercial releases and feature Lead Belly leisurely telling the stories behind the tunes, singing with minimal or no accompaniment.
There's "Out on the Western Plains," a cowboy song about fighting Jesse James and Buffalo Bill, a deep blues, no guitar, just hand claps, a far cry from Gene Autry or Hank Williams. There's "Relax Your Mind," written by Lead Belly, writes Place in the liner notes, at the request of the National Automobile Safety Council to use in a PSA. "So many people get lost, not relaxin', not lookin' where they're goin'," Lead Belly declares, before jumping into the tune. There's "Blind Lemon," his tribute to his old friend Blind Lemon Jefferson, and "Rock Me," a radio recording on which his plonking twelve-string accompanies a devastating unknown singer named Anne Graham.
Delivering a collection this large that can maintain interest and even surprise through more than five hours is certainly an impressive feat. The experience is only enhanced by Place's notes, which aim to dispel the lasting impression of Lead Belly, initially discovered at a Louisiana penitentiary, as a convict with a golden voice. (The proof that Lead Belly deserved the two murder convictions he received in his younger days is scant, in retrospect.) The unfair, hollow representation followed Lead Belly throughout his life; on his first visit to New York, the Herald Tribune announced: “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides.”
"[Musicologist] John Lomax started presenting Lead Belly around New York as this guy who knew millions of songs," Place says. "[The press] latched onto the prison angle. But I don't think Lomax went up there with some plan to market Lead Belly that way, or market him at all. He brought him to colleges, mostly, and academic audiences -- he thought they would be interested academically."
It's less about proving Lead Belly's relevance in 2015 than it is preserving a major wellspring of American culture.
For Place, it's less about proving Lead Belly's relevance in 2015 than it is preserving a major wellspring of American culture -- one that has influenced other artists for three quarters of a century. "A couple of younger musicians have come around to visit, who are really into Lead Belly. And I'm always glad to hear their covers and their versions. But I never really seek that stuff out. For me, Lead Belly is just musical giant on his own."