Historical society pays tribute to late folk-blues musician

Goodnight Irene, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, and The Midnight Special — all will be part of Shine a Light on Lead Belly: The Wilton Midnight Special, a tribute concert in honor of American folk and blues musician Lead Belly, who has ties to Wilton. It will take place Saturday, Nov. 21, at the Wilton Historical Society, 224 Danbury Road.

Leslie Nolan, executive director of the Wilton Historical Society, said the historical society has been talking about having a Lead Belly concert for the past three years, and it finally came to fruition when she was contacted by a music producer named Bill Banks.

“Bill Banks is somebody who loves history and has been involved with the historical society,” said Nolan. “He contacted me and then he lined up all the musicians.”

Nolan said the five-hour tribute concert, which begins at 7 p.m., will feature the Frank Enea Band with Meredith DiMenna and David Anastasia. It will also celebrate the 80th anniversary of Lead Belly’s short-term residence in Wilton.

Who was Lead Belly?

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was born in Mooringsport, La., in the late 1880s. He attended school in Texas until he was about 13 years old, during which time he played in a school band.

He eventually focused on the guitar and at 16 moved to Shreveport, La., spending two years there supporting himself as a musician.

By 1912, Lead Belly was living in Dallas, and began concentrating on the 12-string guitar. In December 1917 he was arrested and charged with murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, after singing for the Texas governor, Pat Neff, in 1924, Lead Belly was granted early release the next year.

After returning to his hometown of Mooringsport, Lead Belly was arrested again — this time for attempted murder. He was sent to Angola State Prison near Baton Rouge, which is where he met John and Alan Lomax, a father-and-son duo collecting songs for the Library of Congress, in July 1933.

The Lomaxes spent four days making records at the prison, including recordings of Lead Belly, according to culturalequity.org. Lead Belly recorded for the Lomaxes again in July 1934, when the duo revisited the prison.

After being reprieved by the Louisiana governor a month later, Lead Belly began traveling throughout the South with the Lomaxes, collecting examples of black secular folk songs, mainly in penitentiaries. During that time, recordings are also made of Lead Belly.

Time in Wilton

In January 1935, the Lomaxes rented a “200-year-old farmhouse at the corner of Belden Hill Road and Drum Hill Road, across from the reservoir,” according to the June 16, 1993 issue of The Wilton Bulletin where they and Lead Belly stayed for three months. During that time, Lead Belly recorded 89 selections and worked on a book of himself and his songs with the Lomaxes, which was published a year later.

On Jan. 21, 1935, Lead Belly married Martha Promise in the rented Wilton farmhouse. On his wedding day, the New York Herald reported, Lead Belly wore "an enchanting" double-breasted cinnamon suit with red checks, while the bride wore a black silk frock with a brightly striped yoke and sleeves, which she had bought "on sale" in Norwalk for $3.

In March 1935, John Lomax and Lead Belly parted ways, with Lead Belly returning to Louisiana and Lomax moving to Texas.

Fourteen years later, Lead Belly was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and died on Dec. 6, 1949. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Tribute concert

Attendees of the Wilton Historical Society’s tribute concert will enjoy Southern-style food, including gumbo and cornbread, provided by chef Jeff Esaw, owner of Jeff’s BBQ and Catering in Norwalk, as well as Louisiana wine or Turbodog Louisiana beer.

Nolan said she will have photos and handwritten letters from Lead Belly, provided by a private collector, on display during the event for people to see.

“It’s going to be a great event. Lead belly was so influential —  a major force in the music world,” said Nolan.

“The musicians are going to be performing his music and it’s a great way to be exposed to all the music that he had written and performed.”

Not only was Lead Belly a “master on the 12-string guitar,” said Nolan, but he was also a “musical genius.”

Tickets are $50 and may be purchased on the Wilton Historical Society website, wiltonhistorical.org.