Mamie Smith, with her 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues,” made history as the first black singer to break the color barrier in vocal recordings. However, most historians fail to note that all her backup singers and musicians were white. Before the release of Mamie’s smash hit, Okeh Records’ owner Fred Hagar had received death threats from Northern and Southern pressure groups saying they would boycott the company if he recorded a black singer. It seemed that having a black male singer recording a song was taboo at that time, but Mamie was a black woman, which made her release more palatable to a white audience. After all, the word “crazy” was in the title of Mamie’s hit song. Other black blues singers of the day like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were considered weird, but not dangerous. Bessie was openly bisexual and Ma was an “unattractive” woman.
Allowing a black male singer to make a recording then was unthinkable because such performers were thought by white audiences to be “dangerous” and “lecherous.” But after Mamie’s success, these attitudes began to change rapidly, especially among recording companies. Money talks, loudly. In the latter half of the “Roaring Twenties,” male blues singers like Texas-born Blind Lemon Jefferson and Louisiana-born Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, began to be recognized as “interesting” performers. And nothing was more interesting, in the Prohibition days of Bonnie and Clyde-type criminal worship, than a bad black male blues singer who had been imprisoned for murder and was being recorded after regaining his freedom. Lead Belly fit that bill perfectly.
Lead Belly, the self-styled king of the 12-string guitar, was best remembered for songs such as “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene.” Lead Belly is “the hard name of a harder man,” Woody Guthrie once said of his friend and fellow American music icon. Though most closely associated with the rural Deep South, from the mid-1930s until his death in 1949, Lead Belly lived at 414 E. 10th Street in New York City. He was a regular performer in the music halls of Harlem and also had a regular Sunday night slot on WNYC radio station, explains the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation on its website Gvhsp.org.
Just as he began to achieve some measure of wider fame, Lead Belly got sick. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1949 and was placed in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. By December of that same year, Ledbetter was dead, having spent his final days in a sick bed. He even wrote and recorded a blues song there, entitled “Been So Long,” also called “Bellevue Hospital Blues.” Some of its lyrics are as follows:
“I heard a woman saying the other day,
As some doctor began, in ten days you’ll start walkin’ again,
It’s been so long, so long, so long.”
“Ever been down in Louisiana, in New Orleans?
Got the first woman doctor I ever seen
It’s been so long, so long, so long.”
Writer Nick Deriso explains in somethingelsereviews.com. “He doesn’t lament that certain fate on ‘Been So Long,’ even while admitting that he had already lost the ability to walk. Instead, Lead Belly flirts with the first female doctor he’d ever seen, before turning his focus to a friendly nurse. You start out thinking he’s going to talk about his heartbreaking fate; he ends up joking about an impulse that starts some place lower.” Lead Belly never lost his ribald sense of humor, even when he saw the end approaching.
Bellevue Hospital Center has not lost its reputation either: it is still the oldest public hospital in the United States (founded in 1736) and is still the flagship hospital of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation. Bellevue is also famous for its psychiatric ward and in the old days, getting sent there was a pejorative expression. No longer. Bellevue is now on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit New York City hardest of all American cities. Bellevue has a central role in New York’s fight against the deadly virus as its policy is to accept any patient, insured or not.
Ledbetter’s legacy has also been bolstered through the release of long-lost music recorded under the aegis of Moses Asch for Folkways between 1941-47. The bulk of those recordings was issued in the late-1990s, under the titles Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Bourgeois Blues and Shout On. “Turns out, there’s more where that came from. Those earlier discs have been bolstered by 16 remarkable, previously unheard moments like ‘Been So Long’ for the Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection that was published in February, 2015. This five-disc set includes 108 tracks in all, providing fresh insights into a figure who joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, nearly four decades after his death,” explained Deriso. Lead Belly was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Lead Belly Sings “Bellevue Hospital Blues”