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Lead Belly

The Incomparable Legacy of Lead Belly

By Roger Catlin
This article originally appeared in its entirety in Smithsonian Magazine.

"If you asked ten people in the street if they knew who Lead Belly was," Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place says, "eight wouldn't know."

Chances are, though, they'd know many of Lead Belly songs that have been picked up by others. Chief among them: "Goodnight Irene," an American standard made a No. 1 hit by The Weavers in 1950, one year after the death of the blues man who was first to record it, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.

But the roster also includes "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," the spooky song that capped Nirvana's Grammy winning No. 1 "Unplugged in New York" album in 1994 that sold 5 million copies.

And in between? "Rock Island Line," recorded by both Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Cash; "House of the Rising Sun," made a No. 1 hit by the Animals; "Cotton Fields," sung by Odetta but also the Beach Boys; "Gallows Pole," as interpreted by Led Zeppelin, and "Midnight Special" recorded by Credence Clearwater Revival and a host of others.

Also on the list is "Black Betty," known to many as a hard-hitting 1977 rock song by Ram Jam that became a sports arena chant and has been covered by Tom Jones.

Few of its fans would realize the origins of that hit as a prison work song, in which its relentless "bam de lam" is meant to simulate the sound of the ax hitting wood, says Place, who co-produced a five-disc boxed set on Lead Belly's recordings out this week.

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