Three Songs of Leadbelly
January 12, 2010 7:27 PM   Subscribe

The only film ever made of the legendary Lead Belly.

Edited by Pete Seeger and shown as part of an episode in his Rainbow Quest series, this eight minute film is the only known surviving performance film of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. Details. Additionally: The Incompleat Filmmakers: The Little-Known Career of Pete and Toshi Seeger [pdf]

Seeger recounts: "I think that [cameraman Blanding Stone] recorded Leadbelly in a studio the day before then he played the record back while Leadbelly moved his hands and lips in synch with the record. He'd taken a few seconds from one direction and a few seconds from another direction, which is the only reason I was able to edit it. I spent three weeks with a movieola, up in my barn snipping one frame off here and one frame off there and juggling things around. I was able to synch up three songs: 'Grey Goose', 'Take This Hammer' and 'Pick a Bale of Cotton'"

(those with JSTOR access might also like this explanation of how the film came to be and a critical look at how it affected Lead Belly's future career.)
posted by jessamyn (38 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
Just awesome.
posted by futureisunwritten at 7:40 PM on January 12, 2010

Oh shit.
posted by Kloryne at 7:41 PM on January 12, 2010

This is fucking excellent.
posted by ORthey at 7:45 PM on January 12, 2010

I'm confused (and admit that I haven't been able to watch the whole video here at work), but is Leadbelly not performing in this newsreel?
posted by bunglin jones at 7:45 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Kattullus at 7:47 PM on January 12, 2010

The newsreel is thought of as more of a "dramatic recreation" than an actual performance, though it can be argued, I think, that neither are really performances. This is what the JStor article says [my apologies for not being able to find an unpaywalled version of it]

The radio broadcasts focused on the most dramatic and interesting stories of sound of the negro past. Initially, however, producers the previous seven days. To heighten the dramatic effect, the show had developed a technique of "newsacting" -using professional actors in a reconstruction of the event. Leadbelly, however, as judged by the producers to be a polished enough performer to act out his own discovery by the Lomaxes. The show was transmitted in January 1935. More importantly, this radio appearance was followed in March by an appearance in the new film version of the show. The weekly newsreel used a format similar to the radio show in recreating the most dramatic events from the week's news, usually five or six items. The drama of Leadbelly's reconstructed prison release appealed to the producers and in April they the story once again at the Lomax home in Connecticut. The story was told in four scenes under the title "Angola La."
posted by jessamyn at 7:55 PM on January 12, 2010

So is this what the kids today mean when they say "information wants to be free" -- 'cause if so, thanks.

Seriously, is there anything better than the "I knew next to nothing about this fifteen minutes ago but I now want to know everything" feeling? If so, please let me know.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:57 PM on January 12, 2010

High five, awesome find. YAY INTERNET!
posted by not_on_display at 7:59 PM on January 12, 2010

Old film is so arresting! I wish there were some (perhaps wiki) meta-level of data sorting youtube videos by their date of filming, every time someone posts something archaic newly up on YouTube I just want to keep going. Short of that, I don't suppose anyone knows any good repositories of similar historic goodness?
posted by kaspen at 8:15 PM on January 12, 2010

[Alright I realize 1945 is not "archaic", and with the number of people I've seen around here grousing about being made to feel old recently, I hate to overinflate history. I'd seen the number 1925 somewhere and been confused, but regardless, I realize and am now reading into the history of film which goes somewhat further back than that, but still, this and certain other old videos I can recall being posted have an aura about them of being rare, ancient, privileged and few glimpses into a sense of media we can't imagine being born after MTV.]
posted by kaspen at 8:23 PM on January 12, 2010

Very cool!! Thank you for this.
posted by zarq at 8:24 PM on January 12, 2010

The humming in the beggining ... is that ... "In The Pines"?!? Because that would just be too cool ...
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:30 PM on January 12, 2010

(make that "beginning" ...)
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:31 PM on January 12, 2010

That's 'In The Pines,' all right.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:46 PM on January 12, 2010

It totally is "In The Pines"! I love that song.

kaspen, you might like The Prelinger Archives. Library of Congress has some stuff but a lot of it is also available on YouTube (or here among other places)
posted by jessamyn at 8:46 PM on January 12, 2010

OK OK OK check it out - I have had an ear infection in BOTH ears for the last two weeks. When I watched this video my right ear cleared up. No kidding. Some good shit. A miracle.
posted by Kloryne at 8:48 PM on January 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I just marked this so sometime in the future I can show it to my little daughter. She claps along to "Pick a Bale of Cotton" a few times a week. Right after Woody Guthrie's "Car Song."
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:54 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just marked this so sometime in the future I can show it to my little daughter. She claps along to "Pick a Bale of Cotton" a few times a week.

"Bob Dylan once remarked, on his XM radio show, that Lead Belly was 'One of the few ex-cons who recorded a popular children’s album.'"
--From Wikipedia.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:59 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lead Belly fans, this set is essential.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:06 PM on January 12, 2010

posted by stilist at 9:21 PM on January 12, 2010

That's cool.
posted by nola at 9:38 PM on January 12, 2010

HOLY CRAP awesome.
posted by spiderskull at 10:35 PM on January 12, 2010

I'm hours late, but this is one of the reasons I love Metafilter.

What an outstanding post.

Upon Review: It looks like I'm kissing more ass than I actually am.
posted by Sphinx at 10:50 PM on January 12, 2010

Thanks Jessamyn, this is seven shades of spectacular.
posted by ooga_booga at 11:52 PM on January 12, 2010

Wow! Wow! I had NO IDEA there was VIDEO of Leadbelly actually playing! Leadbelly just seems so ancient, like a God. The idea that there's video of him playing is mindblowing. Now if I could only figure out how he does that simultaneous rhythm/slide thing.
posted by DecemberBoy at 12:17 AM on January 13, 2010

Tears of joy. I've grown up hearing old scratchy recordings, tribute records, live performances because of Leadbelly - I had no idea that there was any footage around. Thank you so much.
posted by pupdog at 12:35 AM on January 13, 2010

That was good.
posted by ersatz at 2:46 AM on January 13, 2010

Oh Jess, this is perhaps the finest music post MeFi has seen.
posted by caddis at 3:59 AM on January 13, 2010

What a great surprise to wake up to. Thanks for posting this.
posted by marxchivist at 4:58 AM on January 13, 2010

Fantastic. Many thanks.
posted by rocket88 at 7:17 AM on January 13, 2010

That was just wonderful. Thanks!
posted by ob at 7:20 AM on January 13, 2010

So Leadbelly helped invent the lip-synch video and early eighties hardcore?
posted by jeffen at 7:42 AM on January 13, 2010

Yeah, I'm of a late enough generation that this stuff was thoroughly established in the kids' music canon by the time I hit kindergarten. I didn't even grow up on Leadbelly's own kids' album; for me it was my compulsively perky music teacher's thoroughly sanitized renditions — no booze, no kissing, no dice or cards, no breakups and for the love of gawd no suicide or "accidental" death and dismemberment.

So for a while I thought it was ZOMG SO WEIRD AND MINDBLOWING listening to the original versions of Goodnight Irene or Blue Tailed Fly or whatever — or, conversely, that is was ZOMG WEIRD that these sad, violent, fucked-up songs had been bowdlerized and kiddiefied in the first place.

What I only realized belatedly is that that's how the folk process works. The song comes out one way when you're singing it as a lullaby for your kids, another way when you're drunk off your ass with your friends, another way in church, and another way yet when the nice white man comes into town with his tape recorder and asks you if you can fit all the verses into three minutes. As far as I can tell, Leadbelly himself would have grown up on a clean and cheerful version of Salty Dog, say, and it's almost certain he knew much nastier lyrics to it than he put on record.

I'm writing in the past tense, but this is still how it works. Some of my friends' parents, f'rinstance, they've got cleaned up versions of their old rugby lyrics, so that if you get them drunk enough now they're equally likely to bust out with the Mousse Song ("Whe-e-e-e-en I was a young lad, I used to like cake.....") as with the Moose Song — and of course, their kids started singing the filthy lyrics behind their parents' back at age 11, and in front of their parents at 21 or so, and by now they've turned around and started teaching their own parents the dirty words they wrote to their old Girl Scout songs, and all's well with the world.

The children's album isn't weird; what's weird is that most people now never graduate to the adult versions. And of course, that's only a symptom of the larger problem that American adults don't sing together for fun anymore, and don't even get me started on that shit or I'll never shut up.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:08 AM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

And of course, that's only a symptom of the larger problem that American adults don't sing together for fun anymore

♩This. ♫♩
posted by Kabanos at 10:58 AM on January 13, 2010

That's cool, he's covering Camper Van.

Seriously though, thanks.
posted by humboldt32 at 12:18 PM on January 13, 2010

I like seeing him as a performer. He's got some showmanship, such as when he holds the guitar like a rifle when singing about a shooting, and he's terrifically exhuberant. When you listen to old folk and blues songs, they're divorced from their performative styles, and it's a pity -- repeatedly, when I see old films like this, it becomes obvious that these artists had great stage presence, including all sorts of theatrical gestures that made their songs a performance, more than simply a musical recitation.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:56 PM on January 13, 2010

I'm assuming this must have been unedited footage from the newsreel, but this extended clip of Lead Belly serenading his wife is worth seeing on its own.
posted by anthom at 1:03 PM on January 13, 2010

Put me in the "should've known about all this but didn't," "good job, internet," and "excellent post" categories. Thanks!
posted by turducken at 3:03 PM on January 13, 2010

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