Lead Belly, the Lomaxes, and the Construction of America’s Musical Heritage

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.

Requirements: 
LCD projection system (optional), cd player (optional)