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Lead Belly’s Music for Children

AuthorJohn Cech
Air Date1/19/2007
Cover of Lead Belly album

Lead Belly’s Music for Children Transcript

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That’s the famous African-American singer, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, doing his version of the children’s game song, “Sally Walker,” from a Folkways recording, Lead Belly Sings for Children. Many of these recordings were made during the 1930s and 1940s, after Lead Belly had come to New York from Louisiana, where he was born in 1888 and grew up, and where he spent his adult life, a sad portion of it in prison.

In a deeply karmic turn, though, that’s where he learned many of the hundreds and hundreds of songs that later brought him fame. He was first recorded in the 1930s by John and Alan Lomax, those pioneering preservers of the American folk tradition who had travelled to the South to capture the folk songs that were quickly disappearing. Lead Belly didn’t disappoint them. He was a living repository of the music of that part of the country — songs for children and for grown-ups, play and party tunes, blues ballads, dance numbers, and spirituals. And he travelled with the Lomax’s to New York where he joined and soon became the center of a growing circle of folk singers that included Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie, both of whom became personal friends.

During the 1940s, Lead Belly frequently gave concerts for children, and thus passed along to another generation songs like “Boll Weevil,” “Skip to My Lou” and “The Rock Island Line” — and work songs like “Take this Hammer” — all of which are on this CD. Until his death in 1949 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Lead Belly taught the mostly white children (and their parents) whom he played for about the need for racial harmony, in songs like “By and By When the Morning Comes.” And he taught them about the blues, which he knew by heart. It’s Lead Belly’s birthday tomorrow — and that’s something to sing about. There has been a flock of recent CDs of blues for kids, but trust me on this — this is the real thing.

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Listen to Lead Belly’s recording of “Skip to My Lou.”

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