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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Leadbelly, the Murderer Who Sang Children's Songs

Posted By on Tue, May 10, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Huddie Ledbetter: Convicted murderer, children's singer. - WWW.LEADBELLY.ORG/
  • Huddie Ledbetter: Convicted murderer, children's singer.

I recognize that schoolyards are dens of rumor and conjecture, places where, over the crackle of Pop Rocks and the snap of bubblegum, kids swap sordid little secrets. It's why I caught myself smiling when my 11-year-old son came home from school and informed me that the gentleman who plays Barney the purple dinosaur was once busted for hiding narcotics in the costume's tail.

(Quick aside: The rumor was debunked by the good folks at They failed to mention that Barney's stubby arms would make sparking up or chopping out lines practically impossible.)

(Quick aside, part two: The conversation with my son took me back to seventh grade and the slightly-more-titillating schoolyard gossip that spread regarding every 12-year-old male's favorite rock band, KISS: That the group was actually comprised of four robots using the most sophisticated animatronic technology available; that vinyl copies of The Elder contained a secret double-groove which played audio of Paul Stanley sharing interior design tips, reading Dostoevsky, etc.; that Peter Criss' inspiration for "Beth" was the relationship between industrious bandleader Ricky Ricardo and his lonely, stay-at-home wife, Lucy; that Gene Simmons was the son of Hungarian Jews. And so on ...)

Scandalous rumors have been associated with various other child entertainers. Who the rumors hounded (behold Uncle Don) and what the rumors constituted is not nearly as interesting as why they're propagated. Maybe adults are to blame. Maybe we're too cynical to believe that excessive tenderness and affability is anything but forced and hollow. Maybe we're jealous of the infinite patience and kindness these individuals display toward children.

Or maybe we just really loathe shit like Barney. (Probably this.)

Whatever the case may be, the discussion with my son prompted me to blow the dust off a compilation by folk blues artist Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, quite possibly the first children's entertainer who was whispered to have a shadowy past. Only in his case, the skeletons were real.

Leadbelly makes today's pop music delinquents (Lil Wayne, Pete Doherty, etc.) look like 4-H Club pledges. He did seven years at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugarland, Tex., for killing a relative. When Alan Lomax "discovered" the guitarist in 1933 he was back in jail, this time at Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary for attempted murder. He had a third brush with the law in 1939 when he was arrested on murder charges after being involved in a stabbing.

Leadbelly became an acclaimed performer for adults and children alike, initially through the aid of Lomax. The press became fixated on his violent past and his renowned fiery temper: Time dubbed him the "Murderous Minstrel"; the New York Herald Tribune declared, "Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides." Lomax, his relationship with the singer-songwriter having turned stormy, also got in his shots, though likely from a safe distance: "Save for being a triple murderer, a drunkard, a congenital liar, and a super double super hypocrite, Leadbelly is a most excellent guitar picker."

Leadbelly's prowess as a children's performer eventually caught the attention of Moses Asch, founder of Folkways records. Leadbelly recorded a number of kids' sides for Asch's pioneering label, a variety of which were released on 1941's Play Parties in Song and Dance as Sung by Lead Belly. Thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, which purchased Folkways in 1987, Leadbelly's children's tunes are being cherished by today's generation of kids. In 1999, Smithsonian Folkways released Lead Belly Sings for Children (), a 28-track compilation culled from recordings from the 1940s, as well as the 1960 Folkways album Negro Folk Songs for Young People.

"Leadbelly just glowed when he played for children," says Jeff Place, Smithsonian Folkways' archivist and the compilation's producer. "He had a certain reputation on account of his past, but those who knew him said he was such a warm, effusive guy."

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