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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

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Those qualities permeate Lead Belly Sings for Children. Lead Belly revels in silly narratives ("Grey Goose"), gambols through jaunty sing-alongs ("Ha Ha This A-Way"), and makes work time sound like playtime ("Pick a Bale of Cotton," "Take This Hammer"). His vast repertoire of tunes is on full display. His 12-string guitar work is mesmeric; his well-known rough, booming voice smoothed over and sweetened. My kids were sold.

"In terms of great children's music, all the necessary elements are there," Place says in reference to Leadbelly's work. "His songs told interesting stories. You can easily sing along to them. He also didn't dumb down his material. Moses [Asch] was very adamant about achieving this, about releasing children's music that appealed to both kids and adults. You aren't going to find a Folkways release with talking animals."

My favorite moment from Sings for Children is the wonderful spoken word intro to "When a Man's a Long Way from Home," which consists of Leadbelly describing the blues to his young listeners. It's like a cross between Dr. Seuss and Gayle Dean Wardlow. "A blues is a feeling," Leadbelly explains. "And when you get blues it makes some people wear out their shoes. And they got the blues when they wear out their shoes. And blues is a sad news."

On Mother's Day, my 8-year-old asked when we'd be celebrating Kids' Day. All he got back was a terse "Every day is Kids' Day," the implication being that for children, the extreme adoration and general mirth related to Mother's Day is perpetual. Of course, it was a trite attempt to be clever. Kids fret and distress just as frequently as older folk. Kids get the blues, too. And they won't find a kindred spirit in a purple dinosaur or any other present-day child entertainer. They'll find it in a repeat violent offender.


Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to

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