Robert Plant was a kid when he first heard Lead Belly — Lonnie Donegan’s hit cover of “Rock Island Line,” which came out in 1955. As Plant got older, he heard the bluesman’s music in the clubs popping up in London. He even covered an early Lead Belly song in one of his pre-Led Zeppelin bands.
“It’s pretty infectious, joyous music, but it echoes something else pretty sad,” Plant says. “But for us, as kids, it was just, ‘That’s great.’ So much better than some Lawrence Welk impersonator or some third-rate Vic Damone who was conquering the airwaves.”
Alison Krauss was 12 when she first heard “In the Pines,” a dark blues song recorded by Lead Belly as “Black Girl.” This was a decade before Nirvana played the song on MTV’s “Unplugged,” bringing it to a new audience. Krauss heard the tune on Boone Creek’s “One Way Track,” a 1978 album by a band led by Ricky Skaggs.
“That takes me back to another time, that I think I might have a glimpse into another person’s life,” Krauss says. “Lead Belly, he sure is like a movie when you hear him sing.”
And Lucinda Williams, the twang queen, admits that she was more into rock in the ’60s. But it was hard not to be intrigued by the curious opening of “Rock Island Line.”
“I got pigs, I got sheep, I got cows, I got horses,” she sings into the phone, recalling Lead Belly’s a cappella chant before his driving 12-string guitar kicks in. “There was a certain humor in it, and it really caught my attention.”
It’s fitting that the three singers, who spoke to The Washington Post earlier this month, will be performing at the Kennedy Center on Saturday in a tribute to the bluesman, “Lead Belly at 125: A Tribute to an American Songster.” Other performers will include Buddy Miller, Valerie June, Josh White Jr., Alvin Youngblood Hart and Viktor Krauss.
The show, a collaboration with the Grammy Museum, is part of a slew of activities centered on the bluesman, who died 66 years ago, including a Smithsonian Folkways five-disc box set released in February and a Smithsonian Channel documentary. All for a figure who rose from obscurity and a difficult life — Lead Belly served a considerable amount of time in prison — to eventually play Carnegie Hall and tour England. Lead Belly also occupies his own place in blues culture. He’s no Robert Johnson, the mysterious figure at the crossroads who couldn’t get out of the 1930s. But Lead Belly’s death, in 1949 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, came too early for him to benefit from the 1960s folk revival.
Huddie William Ledbetter earned just $11.58 in royalties for the first two records he made for Folkways founder Moses Asch, yet those albums are still influential. And one of his recordings, “Black Betty,” covered by the otherwise unknown ’70s band Ram Jam, would become one of the most popular sports-arena rock anthems this side of Gary Glitter.
“I heard all these songs — ‘The House of the Rising Sun,’ ‘Midnight Special’ — and I didn’t realize they went back to Lead Belly,” Williams says.
For Plant, the study of Lead Belly — learning about his complicated relationship with archivist John Lomax, for example — would come as he grew older. As a kid, growing up in England, there was a choice: Listen to mainstream white pop or “dig the music that was really moving me.”
In 1970, Plant and Led Zeppelin would record “Gallows Pole,” a variation of Folkways artist Fred Gerlach’s take on Lead Belly’s version. And in 2004 in Cleveland, Plant would find himself in rehearsal with Alison Krauss for a Lead Belly tribute concert.
The two musicians say that experience led to their recording the album “Raising Sand,” which won a Grammy in 2009.
“We talked about Lead Belly, and we talked about the Stanley brothers, and I felt we had a love for the history,” Krauss recalls. “[Plant] is very much a student of the music, and so am I.”