New York City Blues
When Lead Belly was released from his last prison sentence, the United States was deep in the Great Depression, and jobs were very scarce. Lead Belly and John Lomax spent the entirety of 1934 driving around the Depression-Era American South working together to collect and archive priceless samples of American folk music. In 1935 Lead Belly ended up in New York.
“Lead Belly Wasn’t A Native New Yorker But He Sure Became One In The Late 1930s, 1940s”
– Stephen Petrus
Life In New York
On New Year’s Day, 1935, the pair arrived in New York City, where Lomax was scheduled to meet with his publisher, Macmillan, about a new collection of folk songs. The newspapers were eager to write about the “singing convict,” and Time magazine made one of its first March of Time newsreels about him. Lead Belly attained fame. The following week, he began recording for the American Record Corporation, but these recordings achieved little commercial success. He recorded over 40 sides for ARC, but only five sides were actually issued.
In February 1935, he married his girlfriend, Martha Promise, who came North from Louisiana to join him. They settled down at the East Village apartment and quickly developed an intimate connection with the budding folk scene in the city. He hung out with the likes of Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. Lead Belly became something of a local celebrity after scoring two radio shows.
By 1936 Lead Belly found himself playing twice a night at the famous Apollo Theatre during the Harlem Renaissance, being recorded for TIME newsreels, having a bunch of awesome article written about him in the People’s Daily and getting his songs recorded by Columbia Records. At one point Lead Belly sings his classic song, “Goodnight, Irene.”
“He helped introduce New York audiences to the music of the Deep South, to cowboy ballads, labor songs, songs about race and politics”