Lead Belly drove into New York City with John and Alan Lomax, on the afternoon of December 31, 1934. The three men had been traveling together for the past two months, through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama, and then up the coast, collecting and recording songs at prison farms. The Lomaxes worked for the Library of Congress, and were folklorists—song catchers—hunting for authentic American, and particularly African American, folk songs, and performers. They looked in prisons because they believed there they could find men cut off from commercial music, and mainstream, white society.
It was in notorious Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana that the Lomaxes met Huddie Ledbetter, or Lead Belly, who stunned them with his mastery of a vast repertoire of traditional songs. Lead Belly had been playing music since he was a child, first on the accordion, then on the six, then twelve string guitar. Coming of age, he played house parties and country dances, left his loving parents for the saloons and whorehouses of Fannin Street, Shreveport, Louisiana’s red light district, and rambled and played with Blind Lemon Jefferson, the famous Texas blues singer and recording star of the 1920s.
When the Lomaxes met Lead Belly he was serving his second sentence, after having previously served six years for the murder of Will Stafford, for which he was pardoned by Texas Governor Pat Neff, who was moved by Lead Belly’s appeal for freedom through music. After he was released Lead Belly was soon in trouble again, for getting into a knife fight, and cutting a white man, whereupon he was sentenced to a minimum of six years of hard labor at Angola.
On New Year’s Day of 1935, Lead Belly gave his first performance in New York City—where he would live for most of the rest of his life—at an informal party organized by New York University Professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle for Columbia and NYU faculty, and for the press. Barnicle was a popular English professor and folklorist, who brought speakers and artists like Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland—protest and folk singers from Kentucky who lived on the Lower East Side—to her classes to perform.
Barnicle had met the Lomaxes in 1933, when they came to New York to publish their book, American Ballads And Folksongs, which included some of Lead Belly’s songs. They hit it off, and she invited them to stay at her book-lined apartment on Avenue B. Barnicle saw folk songs as a living force for social change, and was fascinated by the Lomaxes and their field work.
She invited them to sing and play records for her NYU class. Alan Lomax recalled that Barnicle’s classes were, “stimulating and highly unconventional sessions, with a demanding intellectual content, yet unrestrained in their discussion of literary, economic, political, and sexual issues. Deans and heads of departments did at times protest, but in the end they had to let Professor Barnicle go her own way.”
After the New Year’s Day party in 1935, Lead Belly took the money he earned passing the hat, and went up to Harlem to sample the nightlife, and took in Cab Calloway. He didn’t get back to the apartment at 181 Sullivan Street where the Lomaxes were staying until the next morning, and was met by a reporter who was interviewing John Lomax. The resulting story sensationalized Lead Belly’s violent past, and would figure prominently in the myth that would envelop him.
Lead Belly liked Barnicle, and in the years ahead, they would become a major force in each other’s lives. Barnicle loaned her Connecticut summer house to the Lomaxes and Lead Belly to live and work in, and it was there that Lead Belly married his Shreveport girlfriend Martha Promise.
By the Spring of 1936, as Lead Belly and Martha settled in the city, struggling financially and on relief, Barnicle became Lead Belly’s unofficial manager and mentor, introducing him to a world of Left activism increasingly enmeshed with folk music. She found work for him, and got him to sing for her NYU classes, for pay. She also introduced him to a growing circle of Downtown folk artists, including Aunt Molly Jackson, who went often to Lead Belly’s and Martha’s apartment at 414 East 10th Street.
The apartment would become a meeting ground for an emerging folk community. Folk singers Burl Ives, Sonny Terry, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger all went to Lead Belly’s, and met one another there.
Taking a page out of the Lomaxes book, Barnicle bought a recording machine and made hundreds of recordings of folk music in her apartment on Avenue B, including many of Lead Belly, who would often stop by to record a new song.
Like the folk process itself, the stages of the folk music revival(s) are linked and iterative. It is only natural that in Greenwich Village, in a climate of openness and experimentation, that a revival would blossom, and that that revival would blossom again.