Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog



Black Pearl Sings! is a work of fiction, but the characters and story were inspired by two real historical figures: Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Leadbelly) and Alan Lomax. Writer Frank Higgins did not want to be tied down to actual historical figures when writing the play, but there are many interesting parallels between Leadbelly and Lomax and their fictional counterparts.

Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter

Alan Lomax was not even 20 years old when he and his father were contracted to record a book of folk songs. As with Susannah, the Library of Congress paid for his recording equipment, and the Lomaxes spent time recording African-American work songs – many of them recorded at penitentiaries. It was when they visited a Texas prison that they met Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. He was serving time for a stabbing that resulted in him being charged with assault with the intent to murder. Ledbetter had a history of jail time, and in fact had already been pardoned once by the governor of Texas because of a recording he made.  When Leadbelly met Alan Lomax in July of 1933, he’d already been in jail for 3 years on his current sentence. At the time of their first meeting, they recorded a song called “Irene,” which Leadbelly had learned from one of his uncles. The following summer, the Lomaxes returned and made more recordings, which have been released on the album “The Library of Congress Recordings.” Leadbelly had a request for pardon in with the governor that had been awaiting approval for over a year, so they recorded the song “Governor O.K. Allen,” hoping to get his attention. The song worked and Leadbelly was released in August of 1934.

Following his release, Leadbelly made many more recordings, including the song “Little Sally Walker,” one of the songs featured in Black Pearl Sings!. Lomax and Leadbelly made many academic appearances during 1934 and 1935, including Yale and Harvard, and gained notoriety for their recordings. Eventually, the elder Lomax severed their relationship with Leadbelly after problems on tour in 1935, but a few years later Alan was able to convince Leadbelly to make more recordings for the Library of Congress. In 1939, Leadbelly was arrested again on a stabbing charge, and had to serve another 8 months in jail. After his release, he continued recording and playing music until his death from ALS in 1949. His work remained popular and influential after his death, with covers by Pete Seeger and Frank Sinatra becoming hits. In 1988, his influence over popular music was honored with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax died in 2002, and is considered one of the most important figures in the preservation of American folk music. Recording the music of the people was a lifelong passion for him. After working with Leadbelly, he made many other recordings, including blues, jazz, and cowboy songs. He eventually travelled to Great Britain in an effort to preserve their folk music. Rounder Records has released an astounding 100-CD series showcasing his most legendary field recordings. These recordings still influence musicians today. For example, Moby used several samples from Lomax’s “Sounds of the South: A Musical Journey From the Georgia Sea Islands to the Mississippi Delta” on his album “Play.” One of the biggest hits of the album was the song “Natural Blues,” which is essentially Lomax’s original a capella recording of Vera Hall singing “Troubles So Hard” set to dance music. “Troubles So Hard” also appears in Black Pearl Sings!. Today the bulk of Lomax’s collection is housed at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. It contains more than 5,000 hours of recordings, as well as thousands of video tapes, hundreds of photographs, and his detailed fieldnotes from his decades spent traveling in search on music to record.

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