The Mysterious Inspiration of Lead Belly
Dan Zanes is a Grammy-winning family musician. A former member of the band the The Del Fuegos, he has gone on to redefine children's music with an "unsanitized, unpasteurized, [and] organically even" mode of composition. In 2009, he won the Independent Music Award, and has collaborated with Lou Reed, Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega and numerous others on his albums. He lives in Brooklyn.
Question: What first inspired you to play guitar?
Dan Zanes: To play guitar, Lead Belly. Lead Belly was the inspiration and I’m still trying to figure out what he was doing after all this time. I still haven’t quite gotten it, but that was the inspiration and still probably the most mysterious guitar player that I’m aware of.
Question: How has Leadbelly influenced your music?
Dan Zanes: Lead Belly, the thing that I like about Lead Belly you know I listened to him when I was a kid and I would listen to those records and I would… I could picture… These are the records that came out on Folkways and I would picture Lead Belly sitting in my kitchen playing guitar and I would picture myself right there with him and listening to those records it gave me the sense that that’s where music made, in people’s houses and the thing about Lead Belly that really influences what I do now is that those records it was a mix of old and new songs. He did a lot of music for young people, but in a way the music that he did for young people was kind of the template for everything that I’ve been trying to do where it’s the traditional tunes. It’s some new songs, some songs that are sort of in the back parts of his brain. They come out the way he thinks they were. You know he kind of… He is always reinterpreting things and it was you know sometimes it would move more for young people then sometimes more for older people and I never got the sense that he considered his younger audience any less able to understand what was going on.
You know there is so much mystery in that music and I thought when I started making… You know when my daughter who is 15 now was born I went over to the Tower Records, no longer there. It was a long time ago and I was looking for the updated version of the Lead Belly records that I had listened to as a kid. I just thought that is the template for perfect all age’s music, family music and instead of finding that… I mean I think about Lead Belly or what or Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, you know those people it was the same thing and it all sounded like it was recorded in somebody’s house and it drew on a variety, from a variety of cultures and extremely artful and sophisticated, but it was… It also sounded like driftwood and bent nails. You know just real homemade and instead of finding the updated version of that what I… You know a lot of what I found was very corporate. You know it seemed like everything is either tied into a cartoon or a movie or something like that and eventually I found a lot of great all ages music, but I didn’t find the sound I heard in my head, which was again, the update version of those Folkways Records, so that’s… So the idea of what Lead Belly was doing stays with me and that’s always been what I’ve been trying to create when I go out to make this family music, so it’s a constant. He is with me always.
Question: Who else inspired you?
Dan Zanes: I like the way Bob Dylan plays guitar and Gordon Lightfoot and the guy from the Bahamas, Joseph Spence, great guitar player, but I… Pops Staples probably the person that I most try to be like that I feel like his playing is within my grasp unlike Lead Belly’s playing I think Pops Staples I can figure that out, so that is always what I’m moving towards and also I like to play electric guitar, which was never Lead Belly’s thing, but Pops Staples’ is an electric guitar player.
The folk legend has a curiously inspiring legacy—partly due to his unique ability to render almost anything into music and also because many aren’t entirely sure just how he played his guitar.
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