Dan Zanes discovered Lead Belly’s music on the day he got his first library card. On ‘Lead Belly, Baby!’ (out 8/25 on Smithsonian Folkways), the GRAMMY-winning family music performer presents a fresh vision of Lead Belly’s music for a new generation with a little help from his friends. Along with guests including Chuck D., Billy Bragg, Aloe Blacc, and Valerie June, Zanes brings the music of this American icon back full circle to its original home on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
“Lead Belly’s music made me want to play as a 7-year-old, and I’ve been doing that ever since,” says Zanes, who wrote an essay called “Lead Belly, The Grey Goose, and Me” that accompanies the 15-track album. “Lead Belly was the reason I started making music, and Lead Belly was the template for everything I’ve done in family music. I consider him to be the father of modern family music.”
‘Lead Belly, Baby!’ begins, appropriately, with Zanes picking a 12-string acoustic guitar on “More Yet.” Soon, he’s joined by a full band of friends, including a group of children who sing with him.
The album’s songs, many of which have become folk standards, are performed in a variety of styles, showing the broad impact of Lead Belly’s music. “We wanted to bring his approach into the 21st century, to make a living folk record for an icon whose legacy is very much alive,” Zanes says. Zanes acknowledged Lead Belly’s love of wordplay by bringing in MCs including Chuck D. and Memphis Jelks, who trade lines on the popular 19th-century dance song “Skip to My Lou.” Billy Bragg joins Zanes for a psychedelic folk interpretation of “Rock Island Line,” the railroad song that became the anthem of the British skiffle craze of the 1950s. A version of “Cotton Fields” sung in Spanish and English pays tribute to both Lead Belly and norteño great Ramón Ayala, who also had a hit with the song.
Zanes and his fiancée, Claudia Eliaza, are pioneers in the sensory-friendly performance movement. The Kennedy Center recently commissioned the two to create the first sensory-friendly folk opera, Night Train 57, slated to premiere in October. “For me, the folk experience is about inclusion and participation — welcoming people in,” Zanes says. “The spirit of Lead Belly’s music that affected me as a 7-year-old drives me to want to create and present in a sensory-friendly atmosphere today.” In addition to making other national performances of Night Train 57, Zanes will tour as “The Lead Belly Project” beginnning in fall 2017.
It is fitting that ‘Lead Belly, Baby!’ will be released by Smithsonian Folkways. The album represents a homecoming of sorts for music of “The King of the 12-String Guitar,” Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (c.1888-1949), who was a foundational artist for Folkways Records and recorded his most famous work for the label and its founder Moses Asch in the 1940s. Lead Belly was famous for his love of performing for children, often giving concerts at schools around New York. Smithsonian Folkways highlighted this side of the singer with 1999’s ‘Lead Belly Sings for Children’, a collection of songs originally recorded in children’s concerts and studios during the 1940s. In 2014, Smithsonian Folkways celebrated the legacy of one of America’s most treasured 20th-century icons with a career-spanning, 5-CD box set called ‘Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.’
‘Lead Belly, Baby!’ is Zanes first album for Smithsonian Folkways. It includes a 40-page booklet with lyrics to all songs and liner notes by Zanes and Jeff Place, the Senior Curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.
‘Lead Belly, Baby!’ Track List:
1. More Yet (feat. Shareef Swindell)
2. Rock Island Line (feat. Billy Bragg)
3. Ha-Ha This-A-Way (feat. Tamar Kali)
4. Julie Ann Johnson (feat. Jendog Lonewolf)
5. Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie (feat. Madame Marie Jean Laurent & Ceddyjay)
6. Polly Wee (feat. Father Goose and Little Goose)
7. Boll Weevil (feat. Aloe Blacc and Pauline Jean)
8. New York City (feat. Claudia Eliaza)
9. Skip to My Lou (feat. Chuck D. and Memphis Jelks)
10. Take This Hammer (feat. Valerie June)
11. Cotton Fields (feat. Sonia de los Santos, Elena Moon Park, & José Joaquin Garcia)
12. Red Bird (feat. Ashley Phillips)
13. Whoa Back Buck (feat. Donald Saaf with Isak and Ole)
14. Stewball (feat. Marley Reedy)
15. Relax Your Mind (feat. Neha Jiwrajka)