Smithsonian Folkways release 5-Disc Set Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection on February 24


Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is proud to present Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection – the first in-depth, career-spanning box set of songs, photos, and essays dedicated to one of America’s most treasured 20th-century icons (due out February 24, 2015).

A companion to 2012’s GRAMMY-winning Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection chronicles the recordings of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (c. 1888­–1949) in 108 tracks over five discs, including Lead Belly’s beloved classics ‘The Midnight Special’, ‘Goodnight Irene’, and ‘Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)’ among many others. The collection also boasts 16 previously unreleased recordings, including four never-before-available original songs, and radio programs Lead Belly made for WNYC which can be heard for the first time since airing in 1941.

The set also features many rare photos, among them an intimate portrait taken shortly before his untimely death from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1949. It is one of the few known color photographs of the legend.

Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection was compiled and produced by GRAMMY-winning Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place and Executive Director of the GRAMMY Museum Robert Santelli. The collection is housed in a 140-page, large format (12×12) book, with an introduction entitled ‘A Man of Contradiction and Complexity’ from Santelli and an illuminating essay ‘The Life and Legacy of Lead Belly’ by Place.

In addition, The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles, CA is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Lead Belly: A Musical Legacy which showcases a collection of documents and lyrics, as well as his signature 12-string Stella guitar (on display through May, 2015). There will be more special events planned around the box set’s release, with details to follow.

Lead Belly is “the hard name of a harder man,” said Woody Guthrie of his friend and fellow American music icon, who was born Huddie Ledbetter (c. 1888–1949). From the swamplands of Louisiana, the prisons of Texas, and the streets of New York City, Lead Belly and his music became cornerstones of American folk music and touchstones of African American cultural legacy. With his 12-string Stella guitar, he sang out a cornucopia of songs that included his classics “The Midnight Special,” “Irene,” “The Bourgeois Blues,” and many more, which in turn have been covered by musical notables such as the Beach Boys (“Cotton Fields”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“The Midnight Special”), Led Zeppelin (“Gallows Pole”), Van Morrison (“The Midnight Special”), Nirvana (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”), Odetta (“Looking for a Home” tribute album), Little Richard (“Rock Island Line”), Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra (“Irene”) and Tom Waits (“Irene”), among many others.

Lead Belly recorded with Folkways Records founder Moses Asch between 1941 and 1947, capturing some of the most important recordings in the history of American music.