Tonight at 8 o’clock, a new Smithsonian Channel documentary tracks the life and influence of Huddie Ledbetter, the folk and blues singer best known as Lead Belly. Over the course of an hour, Legend of Lead Belly travels from his birth in the late 1880s through his 1949 death, covering the prison stints, music-inspired pardon, early recordings and move to New York City that took place in between. Above, watch a clip in which Lead Belly biographer John Reynolds and Doors guitarist Robby Krieger discuss his early move from Texas to Louisiana, where he settled in the town of Shreveport.
“When Lead Belly was 12 or 13,” says Reynolds, “he would drive into Fannin Street with his father, in the back of a wagon, and he would say to his father, ‘What are those women?'”
“Fannin Street,” explains Krieger, “was the street where the whorehouses are.”
Lead Belly eventually described this scene in a song named for the strip (opening lyrics: “My mama told me/My sister too/Said, ‘The Shreveport women, son/will be the death of you'”) and in the portion that follows, Krieger uses a 12-string guitar to play his own version of it.
“I’m sure he had a very tough time making money and stuff from music,” says Krieger. “But you can hear in his music that he’s a pretty happy guy, you know? When he’s playing, he’s happy, and that’s what makes the music good.”
The documentary also features interviews with Van Morrison, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn and members of Lead Belly’s family. It is paired with a career-spanning box set, Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.