Smithsonian documentary on music pioneer Lead Belly debuts at FDU

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A new Smithsonian Channel documentary, "Legend of Lead Belly," debuted at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Metropolitan Campus in honor of Black History Month. (Photo by Ben Hartschuh)

By Kenna Caprio

His name is often pronounced incorrectly, and sometimes his musical contributions are overlooked. But his songs are familiar and his legend does, in fact, live on. Now, because of a special screening of “Legend of Lead Belly,” a new Smithsonian Channel documentary, the Fairleigh Dickinson University community knows who the real Lead Belly is — Huddie Ledbetter, the influential 12-string guitar player and blues and folk pioneer who survived life in the post-Civil War south, becoming an inspiration to musicians from Van Morrison to Kurt Cobain.

The University joined with the Smithsonian Channel and Cablevision’s Optimum Community to present the film and a Q-and-A with author John Reynolds and programming executive David Royle on the Metropolitan Campus.

“At FDU, we have been privileged this month to bring to our community many special events celebrating black history. But we don’t limit such celebrations to February. We celebrate diversity every day and value diversity every day,” said University President Sheldon Drucker in his opening remarks. “And this film in particular celebrates the contributions of a unique figure in American history, a figure whose life story reveals much about our society and our culture, our past, our present and maybe even our future.”

Distinguished guest Gordon M. Johnson, New Jersey assemblyman (D-37) and deputy speaker, added, “Lead Belly provided a foundation for American music, through blues, and became a great music hero.”

The documentary chronicles Huddie (pronounced Hoo-dee) Ledbetter’s life — concentrating in particular on his musical career — interspersing archival images and recordings with interviews of folk music experts and popular musicians discussing the performer’s lasting influence.

“We’re an entirely nonfiction channel and our programming is entertaining, dramatic storytelling,” said Royle of the Smithsonian Channel. “That’s something young people are looking for with great curiosity. Lots of people have heard of Lead Belly, but they don’t know Huddie.”

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David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production for the Smithsonian Channel, and John Reynolds, co-author of 'Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures,' show off Lead Belly collections during the Q-and-A session. (Photo by Ben Hartschuh)

Born in 1888, Ledbetter overcame poverty, racism, exploitation and incarceration — where he earned the nickname Lead Belly — in pursuit of his music. “He knew at least 500 songs,” said Reynolds.

In 1933, he recorded the iconic “Goodnight, Irene” for the first time. The song has since been covered by Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Frank Sinatra and many more — it was popularized in 1950, just one year after Ledbetter died, by a folk group called The Weavers which included his friend and folk musician Pete Seeger.

It was also “Goodnight, Irene” that brought Reynolds to Ledbetter.

“I liked the song,” said Reynolds. “Then at 12 years old, I read a New York Times article about Lead Belly and not long after heard a recording of him. I’ve always liked offbeat stuff. So, I started digging on my own.”

He discovered that Ledbetter could hear a song once or twice and memorize it, and that Ledbetter often took pieces of songs and combined them to make a new tune.

This research eventually led Reynolds to Ledbetter’s widow, Martha Promise Ledbetter, with whom he started a correspondence. The two later struck up a friendship. Then Reynolds met Ledbetter’s niece, Tiny Robinson, and they began to collaborate on a Lead Belly scrapbook. It was published years later as, “Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures.”

“His influence goes on and on. More people know of Lead Belly today. People still gather and sing folk songs all over the world,” said Reynolds.

The book and Reynolds’ research contributed background to the new documentary. Reynolds donated some of his files on Ledbetter to the Smithsonian and they are displayed in Washington, D.C. The documentary debut coincides with Smithsonian Folkways release of “Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection” box set.

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Smithsonian Channel, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Optimum Community VIPs David Royle, John Reynolds, Sheldon Drucker, Shawna Ryan, Gordon Johnson, Thurman Barnes and Lakeisha McCoy walk the red carpet before the premiere. (Photo by Ben Hartschuh)

“His is such a story of determination and redemption,” says Royle. “From prison in the Deep South, and later putting together a meaningful life, getting married and finding the New York music scene. He’s such a fine spirit.”

That spirit remains, carried on through covers of Ledbetter’s songs. Van Morrison recorded “Midnight Special,” Kurt Cobain played “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and The Animals popularized “House of the Rising Sun.” Ultimately, in 1988, Ledbetter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “He’s influenced pop singers and hip-hop artists, too,” added Reynolds.

Following the screening, Reynolds and Royle answered audience questions with Shawna Ryan, a news anchor for Optimum Community, moderating the event.

One audience member asked, “What would Lead Belly be singing about today?”

Royle replied, “He’s still singing.”