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Why Lead Belly was more than a blues singer

Friday, August 01, 2008 - 01:19 PM

Musicians generally hate being stuck into one stylistic box. Debussy and Ravel disliked the term “Impressionist.” Steve Reich and Philip Glass still rail against the use of the term “Minimalist” for their music. Miles Davis hated the term “jazz.” Well, you might think that someone like Lead Belly (and that is how HE spelled it, though you’ll commonly see Leadbelly) would have been so grateful to have been plucked out of the penitentiary and set on the road to a successful musical career that he wouldn’t have quibbled with those who called him a “bluesman.” But Lead Belly was, among many other things, a literate man and a guy with an extraordinary ear. He played blues, but that was a fraction of his repertoire, and in fact he actually precedes the blues. The folklorist John Lomax and other producers and presenters would tout Lead Belly as a blues singer – probably because that’s what you expected an African-American man with a guitar to be. But in fact he was a repository of folk styles – Appalachian, Southern, black, white – as well as cowboy songs, early Gospel, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and more.

Now, since the guy has been inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and immortalized in numerous CD collections and several books, it’s hard to say that Lead Belly’s reputation has suffered greatly because of this trend to categorize everything. But American culture is full of artists who colored outside the lines, and some of them have not gotten their due because of how they’ve been pigeonholed. Scott Joplin and Alec Wilder wanted to be known as composers, but America insisted on viewing them as pop tunesmiths, for example. What other American musicians have we overlooked because they didn’t fit what we were told to expect from them?


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Comments [2]

William J. Zick

This post makes an extremely important point about Scott Joplin's attempts to gain recognition as a classical composer. The Scott Joplin page at my website,, observes: Joplin attempted to establish himself as a composer of larger-scale works, with a folk ballet called "The Ragtime Dance" in 1902 and a 1903 opera "A Guest of Honor," but neither work was performed widely. His 1911 opera "Treemonisha" was not performed until 1972, when Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony presented it in an orchestration by T.J. Anderson, with Katherine Dunham as choreographer and stage manager, Robert Shaw as conductor, and a young Uzee Brown, Jr. in his first operatic role as Parson Alltalk.

William Grant Still's opera "Troubled Island" had just one performance. James P. Johnson was better known as co-author of "The Charleston" than as composer of "Yamekraw: A Negro Folk Rhapsody". Even Duke Ellington faced resistance to the full-scale works he composed, starting with "Black, Brown and Beige".

Aug. 02 2008 06:36 AM
Jason Walker

The musician I think has been overlooked is a tenor named Roland Hayes. He was known to be a spirituals arranger and singer but I think he took it to another level. He was a folk, spiritual and classical singer. The way he interpreted the spirituals and other religious music took it beyond the frame of providing spiritual comfort and conversion. Some of his stuff is no longer available but his singing intensifies the listeners hearing of spirituals and clarifies the hearing of classical masterpieces.

Aug. 01 2008 02:04 PM

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