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Lead Belly box overwhelmingly good

This year's gonna be a big year for Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly) and it starts with a 5-CD box set, the first comprehensive overview of his life.

By Mike Greenblatt

Lead Belly
"The Smithsonian Folkways Collection"
(5-CD box set)

4 stars

This year is going to be a big year for Huddie Ledbetter, born in 1888 in Louisiana. Better known as Lead Belly, this singer/songwriter/12-string guitarist, who died in 1949, laid down the template for topical songs, influencing the ‘60s protest movement, Great Britain’s skiffle craze (which led to the Beatles) and even hip hop mythologizing. The songs he wrote have been recorded and performed by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, Tom Waits (“Fannin Street”), Led Zeppelin (“The Gallis Pole”), Taj Mahal (“Linin’ Track”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“The Midnight Special”), The Weavers (“Goodnight Irene” which hit No. 1 in 1950), Lonnie Donegan (“Rock Island Line,” a British No. 1), Nirvana (“Black Girl: Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) and dozens of others. He represents, along with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, “The Holy Trinity” of American Folk Music, according to Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli, who has co-produced this lavish 5-CD box set, the first comprehensive overview of an incredible life. Complete with 140-page hard cover book, its 108 songs (16 never-before-released), reveal the breadth of Lead Belly’s artistry. It’s almost hard to fathom.

A convicted murderer who spent most of his 20s in jail, Lead Belly was discovered in 1933 by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who marketed him as a “savage character from the swamplands.” Co-producer Jeff Place told Alan Light in the New York Times he was often asked to perform in prison overalls once Texas Governor Pat Morris Neff pardoned him. “His image was that of the proto-gangster rapper leaning heavily on the so-called authenticity of his criminal past.”

Lead Belly didn’t shy away from telling it like it was … and still is. “The Bourgeois Blues” is about Washington DC. “Scottsboro Boys” is about the 1931 landmark case of nine black youths falsely convicted of raping two white women. “The Hindenburg Disaster,” “Jean Harlow,” “T.B. Blues,” “Blind Lemon” (about his ramblings with the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson), “National Defense Blues,” “Mr. Hitler,” “Bellevue Hospital Blues” and “What’s You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire” encapsulates his brutal honesty.

A tribute concert is set for Washington DC’s Kennedy Center. A new documentary film, “Legend Of Lead Belly,” sheds light on his troubled past. The 1976 “Leadbelly” movie (which used the former spelling of his name) told the story of the 35-year prison sentence he received for killing a man with his bare hands in a bar fight over a woman, and his subsequent violent outbursts while in jail which landed him in Angola, historically the worst hell-hole on earth.

Woody Guthrie’s Grammy-winning Smithsonian box came out in 2012. A similar package is in the works for Pete Seeger.