Edited by Tiny Robinson and John Reynolds.
Steidl, Göttingen, 2008. Casebound with debossed plate on cover. 224 pp., 160 color illustrations, 9x13". $50.00
Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures edited by Tiny Robinson and John Reynolds, published by Steidl, 2008
Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures is a celebratory view of the great musician, filled with testimonials, poems and memories from Huddie Ledbetter's family, friends and admirers, such as Tom Waits, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and many others who saw the greatness of Lead Belly's music. The uniqueness of this handsome book is its photographs, which speak to Lead Belly's power and persona. At first glance, this is a scrapbook of images and documents uncovered in a box, presumably the collection of Huddie's wife, Martha. There are personal handwritten letters to her, as well as many of the more horrific documents that shaped Lead Belly's life: the awful contract with John Lomax which reads like a legalization of slavery and exploitation, the governor's papers releasing him from prison, as well as the FBI's file on him.
A careful reading of the photographs reveals the dilemma of Lead Belly's life: the shaping of his public image and his desire for dignity and respectability. Lomax and his counterparts felt they could only succeed in promoting Lead Belly by exploiting his status as an ex-convict. He was their discovery, their cash cow, and they presented him in prison stripes and chains, in overalls with bare feet, singing and playing his guitar on a pile of hay, prompting Life magazine's 1937 caption "bad nigger makes good minstrel." A brief Lomax-induced media frenzy in 1932 sensationalized Lead Belly as a murder/musician. This characterization plagued Lead Belly his entire life.
You won't see many pictures of Lead Belly in prison stripes in this book. You will see Lead Belly as a musician, singing for children, playing college concerts, singing for unions, Capitol Records, Standard Oil and for Folkways, always dressed in a tailored suit, white shirt, tie and a neat handkerchief in his breast pocket. But Lead Belly's self-presentation did not distance him from his music. The soulful close up portraits with his beautiful wife and the images of him singing so forcefully reveal the folk-based heart of his music and his passionate involvement.
The issue of what is folk and what is not becomes confusing when the musician's self-image is put into consideration. Lead Belly's dream was to be a popular country music singer like Gene Autry: this book shows Lead Belly as much more than that -- he could be a blues man, a primitive jazz artist, a repository of rural folk life, a convict singing chain gang songs and a windjammer at the sukey jumps. His best known song "Goodnight Irene" is still sung worldwide. His legacy and rock steady beat lives on in rock 'n' roll, continuing to make a profound impact on American music.
We'll never know how many other Lead Belly's there were out there, but we were blessed with the one we got. With reservations, Lomax's "discovery" brought his artistry into the spotlight and left it to Lead Belly to make a new life, find a new community and a new image in the world of entertainment. His music and his dilemma continue to confront us: these photographs add dimension to our appreciation.
For more information on Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, please see his wikipedia entry.
John Cohen is a photographer, film maker, musician, artist & ex-
professor at SUNY Purchase. His photographs are at the Metropolitan
Museum, National Gallery, MOMA etc. His photography books include
There Is No Eye and Young Bob (Powerhouse). He's made 15 film
documentaries about traditional music- shown on PBS & BBC and at
festivals world-wide, including 7 at the Margaret Mead Film
Festival. His first film The High Lonesome Sound is still in
distribution after 40 years ( Shanachie ). He is best known as
musician with the New Lost City Ramblers for the past fifty years,
with at least 25 recordings, Grammy nominations etc.