Why Lead Belly was more than a blues singer

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Musicians generally hate being stuck into one stylistic box. Debussy and Ravel disliked the term “Impressionist.” Steve Reich and Philip Glass still rail against the use of the term “Minimalist” for their music. Miles Davis hated the term “jazz.” Well, you might think that someone like Lead Belly (and that is how HE spelled it, though you’ll commonly see Leadbelly) would have been so grateful to have been plucked out of the penitentiary and set on the road to a successful musical career that he wouldn’t have quibbled with those who called him a “bluesman.” But Lead Belly was, among many other things, a literate man and a guy with an extraordinary ear. He played blues, but that was a fraction of his repertoire, and in fact he actually precedes the blues. The folklorist John Lomax and other producers and presenters would tout Lead Belly as a blues singer – probably because that’s what you expected an African-American man with a guitar to be. But in fact he was a repository of folk styles – Appalachian, Southern, black, white – as well as cowboy songs, early Gospel, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and more.

Now, since the guy has been inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and immortalized in numerous CD collections and several books, it’s hard to say that Lead Belly’s reputation has suffered greatly because of this trend to categorize everything. But American culture is full of artists who colored outside the lines, and some of them have not gotten their due because of how they’ve been pigeonholed. Scott Joplin and Alec Wilder wanted to be known as composers, but America insisted on viewing them as pop tunesmiths, for example. What other American musicians have we overlooked because they didn’t fit what we were told to expect from them?