Black Pearl Sings! (coming up in the Fielding Nextstage later this month) is inspired by the true story of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, a blues musician discovered by John and Alan Lomax in a Louisiana prison. The Lomaxes, a father-son folklore-preserving team, had been traveling the country collecting recordings of authentic folk songs. In an oral history recorded for the PBS series American Roots Music, Alan Lomax recalls the first time they heard Lead Belly sing:
My father and I met Lead Belly in the Angola Penitentiary in 1933. We came there looking for the roots of American black song, and we certainly found them with Lead Belly. I’ll never forget: He approached us all the way from the building where he worked, with his big twelve-string guitar in his hand. He sat down in front of us and proceeded to sing everything that we could think of in this beautiful, clear, trumpet-like voice that he had, with his hand simply flying on the strings. His hands were like a whirlwind, and his voice was like a great clear trumpet. You could hear him, literally, half a mile away when he opened up. He was at his peak then. . . . Lead Belly was a man who decided he was going to be a champion in life. Everything he did, he did it with his whole personality: sing, dance, fight, work. And I think the thing that he felt in himself and transmitted to his audience, and the thing that has made him a figure that no one can forget, that impressed the whole world, was the fact that he endured this incredible experience of work in the backward, dangerous, reactionary South, prison experiences, and came out of it with a laugh like a boy, with a sense of total joy in himself. He wasn’t bitter. He simply felt that he triumphed over everything.
It was this note of triumph, an old note that came from the generations of work-song singers, his ancestors in Africa and in the U.S. who cleared the land for cultivation, that echoed through Lead Belly’s voice. He carried that sound right into his city performances, and he simply electrified his audiences. He had standing ovations everywhere we presented him. And suddenly, Lead Belly and the Lomaxes were national figures. Time-Life came along and put him in their first March of Time movie, and there was a book contract and so on. We retired to the country, and I had the tremendous pleasure and excitement of recording everything Lead Belly knew. . . . So Lead Belly, instead of going through the normal kind of commercial process of having to adapt his material to the standards of what somebody thought would sell, arrived in New York with his whole country background of music intact. He kept, up to the end of his life, singing the wonderful rural songs of Louisiana and Texas, which was a frontier in those days, with the same passion and excitement that he had when we first met him.
Of course, Lead Belly may not have remembered this period quite as rosily. Perhaps the Lomaxes were just keeping Lead Belly’s “whole country background of music intact,” but what Lead Belly saw was his managers taking a large cut of his earnings in exchange for very little work. Their management contract, signed in January 1935, dictated that Lead Belly, John Lomax, and Alan Lomax would each receive an equal share of the musician’s earnings – after expenses. John also refused to pay Lead Belly’s third of the money directly to him, and instead sent checks to his wife Martha, on the grounds that she was a more stable person who would spend it more wisely. This arrangement lasted only a couple of months before Lead Belly and his managers parted ways, at which point John agreed to pay the musician his remaining income of $298 only in installments. In September 1935, Lead Belly successfully sued John to receive his earnings in a lump sum and dissolve their management contract. Alan Lomax, however, remained on good terms with Lead Belly, and helped him find work later in his performing career.
Below is the March of Time newsreel mentioned by Alan Lomax, which was released in 1935. It’s scripted and likely fictionalized, but it’s still an interesting piece of history, especially since video footage of Lead Belly is extremely rare. A brief biography of Lead Belly is available on the Lead Belly Foundation website.