Lead Belly, the Lomaxes, and the Construction of America’s Musical Heritage
Today, African American music is exalted as fundamental to American culture — the roots of rock and America’s premier cultural export. But it wasn’t always so. In the 1930s, John and Alan Lomax, a father-son team of folk song collectors for the Library of Congress, took their 350-pound “portable” recording machine to southern prisons, gathering songs from inmates cut off from the pop sound of the day. Their prize find was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, a convicted murderer with a vast repertoire of songs that astonished the Lomaxes. Upon Lead Belly’s release, the Lomaxes took him to New York City and promoted an astonishing claim: this was America’s finest music. Why did the Lomaxes’ claims for Lead Belly strike such a chord in urban America? Why did Lead Belly’s criminal past (the Lomaxes preferred he perform in convict stripes) enhance his appeal? How did the Lomaxes create a “cult of authenticity” that shapes how we understand American music today? Filene will explore these issues, drawing on musical examples and inviting discussion.