When he was discovered in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison farm back in 1933, little did Lead Belly know that his music would alter the course of his destiny and change the life of the architects of his success, famed folklorists John and Alan Lomax. More to the point, there was no way Lead Belly could have realized that he would become the most famous Black folksinger ever, bringing the attention of millions to the power of the African-American song, well outside the boundaries of his own community, as artists as diverse as Nirvana, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Waits or Bob Dylan embraced his repertoire. Huddie Ledbetter—Lead Belly’s real name—owes this extraordinary status to his uncanny talent for bridging gaps. Born in the Deep South in the late 1880s, he was a living link between the end of slavery and the height of the sharecrop system that literally disenfranchised African-Americans during the first half of the 20th Century ; between the false hopes engendered by the Emancipation Proclamation and the despair spawned by Segregation ; between the era of the itinerant songsters and the rise of the blues troubadours, at the time when he was making his apprenticeship as a teenage street musician. In the process, Lead Belly launched almost by himself the folk boom that took by storm the white New York literati, and familiarized Europeans with the blues, triggering a revival that eventually brought about rock music through the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Although it is not widely known, he was also the very first rural blues artist to grace Europeans stages in 1949, shortly before his death at the age of 61. By paying homage to Lead Belly on these live and studio renditions of the old master’s gold songs, blues great Eric Bibb and prolific harmonica player Jean-Jacques Milteau give us much more than a celebration of the folksinger’s rich musical heritage. Establishing a living link between the New World and the Old Continent, they showcase the universality and timelessness of Lead Belly’s message. It is no accident that this recording kicks off with “Grey Goose,” a poetic depiction of social ostracism that finds an echo today with the African and Middle-Eastern migrants who cross the Mediterranean by the thousands on makeshift rafts. The same could be said of the prison song “Midnight Special,” still valid today when African-American males make up 40% of inmates in the US when they represent a mere 13% of the American population, of “The Titanic” with its clear reference to racism that rings appallingly true in the wake of Charleston and Ferguson. Yet, the most topical songs of all might well be “The Bourgeois Blues.” An open denunciation of the color caste system that prevailed in the nation’s capital when Lead Belly recorded it in 1938, it proves that the presence of a Black president in the White House hasn’t really turned the tables in a world of discrimination that’s always prompt to oppress the poor and the voiceless. Spicing up Lead Belly’s repertoire with a handful of their own compositions, Eric and JJ pick up where the original songster left off, addressing everyday issues with a freshness, candor and poetic sense that contribute to the circulation of a message of peace, hope, tolerance, and non-violence. As a result, their rare musical understanding makes Lead Belly’s Gold one of the most exciting recordings of their respective careers.
Lead Belly could have improved the slogan of France—a country he visited shortly before his death—in such a way. For lack of true equality between the poor, illiterate Black individual that he was and the fluctuating entourage drawn by his talent over the years, he fought his whole life for dignity as a human being and, even more so, as an artist. Liberty probably was young Lead Belly’s original aspiration, as he toiled in the segregated South of the turn of the 20th Century. No doubt, the murderous fights that led to his incarceration on several occasions were the result of his injured dignity. Endowed with an uncommon talent, he generated around his person a sense of fraternity that awarded him the protective help of the Lomaxes, favored artistic collaborations with Pete Seeger and other liberals in the 1940’s, aroused the empathy of the young audiences he loved to entertain. Dignity stands out in this humanistic trilogy as Lead Belly’s number one goal : the dignity of being considered an artist first and foremost, regardless of the color of his skin or his judicial past. His repertoire reflects his gift as a storyteller and entertainer ; it also reveals his need to testify. The depth of human feelings and sufferings, religion, social life, anecdotes… it seems his musical chronicles encompassed all topics. As is clear when listening to his live recordings, Lead Belly was wont to comment the tunes he sang, much like a journalist. Yet his main claim to fame is linked to his personal power and conviction as an interpreter. No one is left unscathed by Lead Belly’s voice, by the sound of his guitar, both distant and familiar. Only great artists showcase such timelessness while chronicling their times. Working with Eric on this project has been a real treat. Each and every song came to us in a natural and spontaneous way. The majority of titles present on this album were recorded live, with or without an audience, in order to preserve this freshness. A thousand thanks to Philippe Langlois for providing the original idea and bringing us together, I’m looking forward to more stage performances around this project.