Roots Roadshow Salutes Leadbelly, American Music Pioneer

By 
Salim ALi and Mike Keefe-Feldman
May 31, 2017
Nedelka Prescod and her ensemble perform at tribute to Leadbelly
American roots music string section backs vocal solo
Jerron Paxton
American Roots music presents ____
American Roots music string duet
American Roots music Spirituals Ensemble
Spirituals Ensemble presents the powerful vocals of Berklee
Looky looky yonder, American roots music ensemble
Jerron Paxton
The American Roots Music Program pays tribute to the music of Leadbelly. Here, Nedelka Prescod (right), assistant professor, and her ensemble perform Leadbelly's ode to a faithful horse, "Stewball."
Matt Glaser (center right) leads his American Roots Music Program students in a rendition of "When I Was a Cowboy."
Blues vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton receives Berklee's Master of American Roots Music Award at the Roots Roadshow tribute to Leadbelly.
Student group Octopladd ignites the stage while strumming through "Salty Dog Blues."
Kat Parks makes her violin sing on "John Hardy," a folk standard that dates back to the 1890s.
Visiting artist Woody Mann tunes his guitar and weaves storytelling into his performance.
Student Allison LaRochelle bares her soul on an a cappella arrangement.
Professor Donna McElroy’s Spirituals Ensemble harnesses its collective voice to unearth our American roots.
Students Carolyn Kendrick and Jake Howard trade lines on their rendition of Leadbelly's "Looky Looky Yonder."
Paxton performs the music of Leadbelly, the "king of the 12-string guitar." Leadbelly, like Paxton, was a versatile multi-instrumentalist.
Image by Louise Bichan
Image by Salim ALi
Image by Louise Bichan
Image by Salim ALi
Image by Salim ALi
Image by Salim ALi
Image by Salim ALi
Image by Salim ALi
Image by Louise Bichan
Image by Louise Bichan

Berklee's American Roots Music Program recently presented the pioneering folk music of Hudson "Huddie" William Ledbetter (1885–1949), otherwise known as "Leadbelly," one of the most influential figures in the history of American music. Raised in Louisiana, Leadbelly also worked and traveled through Texas and New York, writing, playing, and adapting music that included spirituals, work songs, ballads, dance numbers, protest songs, and songs for children.

He spent some years in prison, where his vast repertoire grew, and he was a force in the spread of folk music, both through his weekly radio show on WNYC and primarily through his live performances. Leadbelly has contributed numerous important recordings to the U.S. Library of Congress that continue to tell the story of American history in song, although he did not achieve much financial gain from his work during his lifetime. Leadbelly's music was a primary influence on popular folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and has been covered by artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, and more.

Earlier this month, Berklee's American Roots Music Program held a Roots Roadshow tribute concert honoring Leadbelly and his profound impact on American music. The lineup for the showcase featured blues vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, who received Berklee's Master of American Roots Music Award for his work in keeping the music of Leadbelly's era alive. The concert also included faculty such as Matt Glaser, Nedelka Prescod, Donna McElroy, Bruce Molsky, and Wes Corbett; visiting artists such as Paul Rishell, Annie Raines, and Woody Mann; and students in the American Roots program.

Glaser, artistic director of the American Roots Music Program, led the showcase, which featured an array of diverse styles and arrangements that paid homage to the roots of America's musical culture, performed by both domestic and international students who came together to collaborate on some of their favorite songs.