The story of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter reads like a parody of the brutal bluesman biography: Kill a man, go to prison — twice — then appeal for a pardon in a song. According to the legend, Lead Belly's undeniable talent convinced Texas Governor Pat Neff to let him go.
Deacon John does it all. The veteran New Orleans bandleader plays weddings, birthdays, proms, debutante parties. He holds his own at Jazz Fest and at carnival balls. He'll play 1950s R&B, rock, jazz, gospel, soul and disco — whatever the people want to hear. But when it's up to him, he chooses the blues.
The story of Paramount Records is a story of contradictions. It was a record label founded by a furniture company, a commercial enterprise that became arguably the most comprehensive chronicler of African American music in the early 20th century. And yet, for Paramount's executives, music was an afterthought.
Janiva Magness appears on Mountain Stage, recorded live in Charleston, W.Va. One of blues music's most decorated vocalists, Magness drew her earliest musical inspirations from the sounds of her native Detroit and her father's record collection. After losing both her parents, Magness spent her teen years in foster homes, and eventually found her way to an Otis Rush concert in Minneapolis. Her job as a recording engineer in St. Paul led to session work as a background singer, and before long, she was leading her own band.
In the history of American popular music, gospel is the great conveyor. People could hear it everywhere as the 20th century grew from infancy to adolescence: in churches, of course, but also on street corners, sung by wanderers whose guitar work and moaning vocals arose in dialogue with the blues; in factories and mines, where harmonizing quartets provided balm to frustrated workers; on the radio, where preachers and singers performed live to thousands of listeners; and through the new medium of recordings, which turned regional styles into national trends.
In the new, comprehensive boxed set Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, to be released in Feb. 24, 2015, the Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place reminds readers of the huge historical chunk of American music that the legendary singer and songwriter carried forward via his 12-string Stella guitar. "Lead Belly is often spoken of as the 'discovery' of folklorists, but in many ways he was a walking and singing collector of American folk songs in his own right," Place writes.
It's fitting that World Cafe ends its Sense Of Place visit to Lafayette, La., with a performance from Sonny Landreth. The inventive and unpredictable slide-guitar player is a longtime Lafayette resident and a perfect ambassador for the city's music. Landreth's first sideman gig was with zydeco king Clifton Chenier, and several of his songs — like "Congo Square" — have become Louisiana standards.
World Cafe's Sense Of Place visit to Lafayette, La., has to include a long look at zydeco music. As the host of The Zydeco Stomp on KRVS — and food and culture editor of the Lafayette newspaper The Daily Advertiser -- Herman Fusilier has made zydeco his life. Here, Fusilier discusses the differences between Cajun music and zydeco, the many styles of zydeco, and why he's not worried about the genre's future.
When the "King Of Zydeco" Clifton Chenier died in 1989, his son CJ Chenier, already part of the famous Red Hot Louisiana Band, shouldered the accordion and followed in his father's footsteps. This past July, World Cafe talked with the younger Chenier — who was performing at the XPoNential Music Festival in Philadelphia — about growing up with zydeco and what it was like to take over his father's band.
Hear the conversation and full set at the audio link.