The celebrated folk singer Lead Belly was plagued by career and financial troubles, and he had tendencies toward violence and self-sabotage. But a superficial new documentary from the Smithsonian Channel, Legend of Lead Belly, elides the most controversial aspects of his life and imposes a relentlessly positive spin. It also leaves out his fraught relationship with the American Left.
Lead Belly was wary of labor unions and loved commercial music, but to the Communist Party activists who became his champions, he was a vessel for their theory that "authentic" black and working-class Americans were natural proponents of socialist dogmas. So they supported his flagging career, and in exchange he sang protest songs and pretended to be the "embodiment" of the "entire folk culture of the American Negro," as a 1937 profile in the Daily Worker put it. In short, they treated him more as an anthropological phenomenon than as the deeply talented human being that he was. -Jim Epstein
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Lead Belly and the Left".