THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF LEADBELLY by Charles Wolfe

THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF LEADBELLY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Definitive life of America's greatest black folk singer, by Wolfe (Mahalia Jackson, 1990) and Lornell (a consultant for the Smithsonian's Leadbelly archives). Most of Leadbelly's fans first heard his music in recordings that seemed to shore up sensational accounts of his life--accounts alleging that he had twice sung his way out of southern prisons, the power of his voice and his lyrics summoning pardons from two governors: but that's only a myth, say the authors. Early stories also depicted Leadbelly as a knife-and-gun-wielding roustabout, hard on women and quick with his fists, who nevertheless had earned the soubriquet ``The Sweet Singer of the Swamplands'': somewhat closer to the truth, Wolfe and Lornell say. Huddie Ledbetter (1889- 1949), born near Shreveport, was early on given 20 years for murder, though the authors dispute Leadbelly's guilt both in this case and in two later convictions. A strong, proud man who loved freedom, Leadbelly spent 12 years behind bars in three states and twice escaped prison--once from a chain gang, after which he fled to another state and became ``Walter Boyd'' for many years. The singer's prison nickname of ``Leadbelly'' referred to his manliness; and though he learned the value of gentleness in building up ``good time'' for early release from prison, Leadbelly's dude-like aura (even in starched overalls) drew women wherever he played. Leadbelly's genius for folk music flowered long before the blues and jazz crazes of the 20's. In fact, the authors show, imprisonment kept his work pure as he fed from pre-radio springs such as the lives of his fellow prisoners. Following Leadbelly's death, his ``Goodnight, Irene'' became a gargantuan hit--though he'd never been a moneymaker while alive. By deflating the myth, Wolfe and Lornell allow Leadbelly to fill the page with his real and powerful presence. (Eight pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: Dec. 2nd, 1992
ISBN: 0-06-016862-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1992