Jeff Place lives among ghosts.
As chief archivist and curator for the Smithsonian Folkways record label – the most prestigious and often most prolific reissue label in the country, based in DC – most of Place’s day is spent in the past, poring over archive materials of pop culture giants of yesteryear such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten. In February, Place and Folkways celebrated the release of Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, a life-spanning five-disc box set, complete with more context than your mind will know how to process.
Huddie William Ledbetter – better known as Lead Belly – was a folk troubadour from 1930’s New York City via the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Today, more than 65 years after his death, Lead Belly’s music continues to hold relevance, kept on by legions of dedicated rock stars and archivists alike, who aim to keep his famous renditions of early-century folk songs alive. If anyone can explain the undying appeal of Lead Belly, it’s Jeff Place.
We caught up with Place in advance of this weekend’s Lead Belly at 125 event at The Kennedy Center, featuring Robert Plant, Allison Krauss, Viktor Krauss, Buddy Miller and more.
What is your role in the label, and specifically on this Lead Belly release?
Well, on the label, I’m essentially the curator of the Smithsonian Folklife Collections, where Smithsonian Folkways is just one of the collections. I’ve been around the whole time, since Smithsonian Folkways has existed. Tony Seeger – who ran Smithsonian Folkways for a lot of years – and I were the two people back in 1987 when the thing started. I don’t officially work for the label, but I’ve produced over 50 records for them over the years, books, and things like that. So, in the Smithsonian Folkways era, I’m probably the number one producer of their records, quantity-wise.
On this particular release, 99% of the project was me. Other than the idea, which came from Bob Santelli [Director of The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles] and me, I selected all the songs, did all the research, found all the images, wrote most of the book, et cetra.
When was the Lead Belly project first conceived, and how long did it take to come through to release?
It came out of the Woody at 100 book that I did with Bob Santelli; this is kind of the younger sibling of that, really. We did that, and Bob organized all these sorts of concerts and various events to go along with the Guthrie centennial [including this Saturday’s Lead Belly at 125 event at The Kennedy Center], and everything came together really well. The box set did really well; we got a Grammy for best packaging. So, after that was all wrapped up, Bob said we should do the same thing for Lead Belly. That’s kind of what started it, and The Kennedy Center is part of the whole thing. Bob’s behind the concert there.
We started working in earnest on the Lead Belly piece in Spring of ’13. I finished it by Spring or so of ’14. And then it takes another year for the piece to be released, you know with editing and layout, getting it pressed and shipped – that kind of stuff. The package came out this February.
A year of Lead Belly, as it were, and one of the centerpieces is the Lead Belly book and box set. That’s what kicked it off. Now we got a third one, on Pete Seeger, which will come on the heels of this release.
With regard to your curation, what sort of criteria do you have for a song to make it on a retrospective such as this?
I look at these things as little museum exhibits, like panels are the pages of a book. I’m the one that digitized all the Lead Belly stuff for the Smithsonian Collection over the last 28 years, or whatever it is, and I really know the music, the Woody and Lead Belly, really well. So when I went to do this, it was the same idea I had for Woody: I wanted to make the best possible retrospective of the guy’s entire life, his career, and try to represent all the different periods. On Lead Belly, we have some of his earliest prison recordings from the ‘30s from the Library of Congress, all the way up to his last sessions, pretty close to the end of his life.
That start is the frame, and then I think of whatever the “Greatest Hits” are. Here, disc one is Greatest Hits. Disc two and three, he had this incredible wide repertoire. He wasn’t a blues guy, wasn’t a folk singer; he’d play jazz, show tunes, kid songs, rhymes – all that stuff. I had to go through this body of Lead Belly’s work and compile. There are spaces that represent these concepts on these discs. Like, I’ll think of a song that represents something topical or a song about history, so I’ll go grab “The Hindenburg Disaster” song, or something like that. Those two albums are filled in that way. The fourth disc, we have a lot of unreleased radio recordings of Lead Belly from the ‘40s. We talked about doing a CD of those a long time ago that never happened, so this was our chance to do that.
And then the last disc is sort of different for Lead Belly. Since they were recorded on tape, the songs could be longer than three or four minutes. When you record on disc, which is what most of this stuff was recorded on before tape was invented, they only run three or four minutes long. So that means if you have a long song, you can’t record it, or break it in half. And Lead Belly had all these little raps he does before songs, so those got cut off. The last sessions on the radio, we actually got to hear that stuff. I thought of that piece as a different animal, so we got it on the last disc.
That’s how I conceived it. And then I went looking for images from his life, by going to his family and other archive material, looking for images that went along with the concepts and the songs.
What is the source material for these releases? How do you find credible sources and then get the high quality audio or images? What is the process for locating those sources?
On the audio, there are about 110 songs on the record, and only eight songs are not in the Smithsonian collection, where I had to go outside to different sources, such as the Library of Congress or a record company known as Stinson who put out a whole lot of Lead Belly stuff. We licensed this one track from Columbia; I found a tape where he’s singing alone with a Bessie Smith record.
Other than that, everything else was in the Smithsonian collection, I have the original discs and tapes. The tapes aren’t in great shape – [they’re] from the ‘40s – but the glass discs are still in really great shape; you play them today and there’s still incredible fidelity. We were able to go back to the very first recordings of this stuff for the vast majority.
With these discs and tapes, did you go through the process of acquiring, or have they been around?
They came when the Folkways label, started by Moses Asch, was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1987. There are about 5,000 of those discs that were from his studio. All the sessions, where Lead Belly was his studio recording, we have the discs that were recorded at that moment. We have a whole wall of these things.
Do you ever find yourself amazed by the access you have? Do you ever walk through the stacks and feel the power of the collection?
I’m kind of used to it at this point; this is like my second home. It’s where I am all the time, and I’m surrounded by the work all the time. Really, a big impetus for doing these kinds of projects are these sort of “wow” moments. Like, I’m working on a Lead Belly track and maybe I find these lyrics that’s written by his hand. It’s kind of a connection that I can make there, and that feeling is something I want to share with the public, and not something that just sits in the Smithsonian vault. That’s a really big part of Smithsonian Folkways, one of our main missions: get the stuff out there so people can really experience it.
Thank you for your service.
Yeah, it’s been fun. And we acquire new stuff all the time, so there are always new projects. Someday I’ll retire, but I’m not in a hurry.
Can you speak on any images from the Lead Belly book that particularly resonated with the project?
There was a coffee table book made a couple of years ago made by a German publisher, Steidl, of Lead Belly pictures that almost entirely came from Lead Belly’s estate and family, and others. There’s this gentleman named John Reynolds, who lives in New York City, who has been collecting Lead Belly stuff for like 60 years, and he has this massive collection of photos, prints and other things. The book was really beautiful, so I went to John numerous times over the years, and he basically gave me the scanned high-resolution images of all those pictures. There were like hundreds and hundreds of pictures, only part of which went into this set.
Some amazing stuff. One is really striking: He’s sitting in like a nightclub, and you see him from the back. There’s all these people sitting around a table drinking in front of him, and it’s almost like its three dimensional. It’s such a beautiful photo.
There are a lot of photos from his whole life. People didn’t run around with cameras like they do now, so a lot of famous people from those days don’t have many photos. There’s not too many photos of Woody Guthrie in the world, like 20 or something. The famous Robert Johnson had three. The fact that there are tons of pictures of Lead Belly is actually pretty interesting.
What does that say about him? That people were extra interested in him?
He was in New York; that’s part of it. If you’re going to find photographers in those days, it’d be in New York. And there’s a lot of publicity about him, because he was this interesting story. He’d been in prison, and he was in New York and he’s from the deep south, so there were these newsreels done about him. A normal guy playing guitar in East New York, an old black guy, probably wouldn’t have gotten that attention.
What makes the story and music of Lead Belly still relevant? Why does it still resonate after all these years, in your opinion?
He went around during the course of his life just collecting songs; he was really a folklorist himself. Any kind of songs, and he would take them and put his own stamp on them. He played that 12-string guitar, and he played it really rhythmically. You hear like original prison recordings of “Rock Island Line” acapella, the melody is pretty much the same, but he rocks it out. He took all these songs, and he cemented a version of these songs, like “Midnight Special”, and got them on record. Other people came along later, and they would play his version, so that’s what became known of those songs. No one knows all the other ones. No one in the world thinks about the cowboy version of “Midnight Special”. Different generations of people have come along and picked up his music, they love them and keep those songs going.
There’s something magical about it too. Listening to classic American recordings, especially an artist such as Lead Belly, I get a mystical feeling. Peering into the past, and yet still feeling fresh; there’s a paradox there.
Yeah, and he was such a part of that scene. I’ve been working on those Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger projects; both of those guys talk about him like being this major guy around, kind of like a father figure. Guthrie was born in ’12 and Seeger in ’14, and Lead Belly was born in 1889, so he’s a generation older. He was kind of showing them the ropes and being an older mentor, even though he was this guy who didn’t have a whole lot of money.
He was this very powerful figure, and it’s really unfortunate that he died as early as he did. I think that if he lived another twenty years, he’d be thought of like Muddy Waters. And he would have toured Europe, like Muddy Waters did, and got to be on those records with Rolling Stones, it was just unfortunate that he died youngish. He had Lou Gerhig’s disease. He died at pretty much the same age I am now, and that doesn’t seem so old, I hope.
And unfortunately for him, when he died, “Goodnight Irene” becomes the number one hit of the year. It made tons of money, and he would have been able to live pretty well, so there’s a sad story there too.
Are these box set releases lucrative? Do they make good money for the Smithsonian Institution?
Yeah, they do OK. Oddly enough the Anthology of American Folk Music, a the huge project I worked on in the 90s, actually went gold, which is kind of inconceivable for a Smithsonian Folkways record. They do fairly well; we’re not going to break any records, but the mission is most important.
I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon here, but I like looking at liner notes and getting to know the history of the music. I can honestly say, like in the case of Lead Belly when I first started working on his music in like 1989, that I was hearing songs that I had never heard before. And then I worked on them again in the late ’90s, and I started to learn some of the titles, and I got to understand the context a lot more; listening then was a totally different experience. Now, this time, I’ve gone deeper and deeper and deeper into the songs; again they change context, and I can appreciate them in a different light. In the world we have now, with music going straight to digital and traded there, the whole concept of the liner notes doesn’t really come around.
So I thought of how to deal with that, and in this case, we have a book that’s so compelling, and the music comes along with it. That’s how I was thinking about it, so that the liner notes and the packaging aren’t an add-on value, but the core of it. For me and the future, I think that’s a lot of what I’m going to do.