The Smithsonian Institution has mined its archives to produce a television documentary and CD boxed set of an icon of American folk and blues, Lead Belly.
“In 2012 we produced ‘Woody at 100’ for the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth,” explained senior archivist Jeff Place. “We started looking at other really iconic that we have in the Smithsonian’s folklife collections, and one of the other major, major figures is Lead Belly.”
Years in prison and the struggle to survive the Great Depression dealt severe blows to Lead Belly’s career. Though he wrote hundreds of songs and reinterpreted an even larger number of traditional tunes, he struggled to earn a living and reach an audience.
“Lead Belly died in 1949. A year later, his most famous song, ‘Good Night Irene’ is number one in the nation, as recorded by The Weavers,” said Place. “He was penniless when he died. A year later, he would’ve been wealthy and well-known.”
“Legend of Lead Belly” is an hourlong special premiering on Smithsonian Channel Monday. the next day, “Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection,” a book and five CD collection, will be released.