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Lead Belly, "The Singing Cowboy": American Songster Radio Season 2 Episode 3

Black Cowboys
Tim Duffy
/
Music Maker
Black Cowboys

This is episode three from season two of American Songster Radio.

Huddie Ledbetter ("Lead Belly") met the song collector John Lomax at the Angola Penitentiary in 1934. That meeting would go down in history as launching one of American folk music’s most important partnerships. The recordings the pair made for the Library of Congress form some of the defining documents of African-American folk song tradition.  

Just like Henry Thomas and other black songsters of the west, Lead Belly made music with cultural connections to African-Americans’ western migration. His most well-known western theme song, "When I Was a Cowboy," reinforces the connection between the blues, folk music, and cowboy poetry. 

As part of his repertoire of black cowboy music, Dom includes the songs "Po’ Howard" and "Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In." To Dom, these selections are a "reflection of the emotional journey of migrating out West" in the era after emancipation:     

In an interview with Alan Lomax, Lead Belly told him that "Po’ Howard" was "the first fiddler after Negroes got freed from slavery times."

"Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In" is a song of civil disobedience that continues to be relevant today. I arranged these songs in a medley to simulate the style of prominent civil rights activist and folk singer Pete Seeger. The banjo and the lyrics combined pay a powerful tribute to the slaves who were emancipated.

In this episode of American Songster Radio, Dom explains how cowboy song collecting leads to Lomax’s discovery of Lead Belly.  He also shares his version of the songs "Po’ Howard" and "Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In," live on stage.   

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