|Wetting the sidewalk, The Village, 1940|
Eyewitness: One night there was a concert in a grade school auditorium on the West Side [of Manhattan], downtown on Hudson Street, in the area now known as TriBeCa, [the Triangle Below Canal Street.] It was one of those cramped, high-ceilinged halls common to the old schools built before World War I. The event was a fund-raiser of some kind, I can't remember now just what, but probably a strike. The Almanac Singers were on the stage singing a song about Harlan County in the Virginias, where so much striking-miners' blood was shed. "Blood on the Ground" was the refrain. Lee Hays led them. Later, Alan Lomax sang some of the songs he learned from Leadbelly and others, and an Irish poet was on the program, too; I'm ashamed to have forgotten his name as well.
Then Leadbelly came on. It was the difference between day and night. He had it. He was billed as the "King of the 12 String Guitar" and the minute he hit (not stroked) those strings, you knew it was the truth. And when he opened his mouth and hollered, the sound of his voice seemed to acquire your ears, and the rest of you, — with force. He made sound assume a weight I have never heard another voice approach. It was staggering. And even though I recall a microphone, it was really long before the era of sound enhancement, it was more like a little electric juice added to make the sound carry further, not really sound louder.
After the woes of 1939, 1940 turned out to be one of Leadbelly's best career years, and during the next few years, he was associated with a number of folk singers who based themselves in New York City. These included Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who were part of the Almanac Singers and who eventually formed the popular 1950's group The Weavers; Woody Guthrie, who also sang with the Almanacs; Cisco Houston, Oscar Brand, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee and Josh White.