Alan Lomax

Pete Seeger in Washington

Pete Seeger, the folk music legend who passed away on Jan. 27 at age 94 in New York City, was a performer whose art was intertwined in close harmony with a slew of social causes, ranging from civil rights and the organized labor movement to environmentalism. As he once wrote, "Music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends." While Seeger lived most of his life in upstate New York, Seeger's twin passions for music and activism often brought him to Washington, where his calm eloquence and forthrightness gave him influence in the White House — and also subjected him to peril. 

Portrait of Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948 (Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

Impressions of Washington: Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues"

Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949), better known as Lead Belly, was a legendary folk and blues musician known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, powerful vocals and the huge catalog of folk standards he introduced. Inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, artists from Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin to Nirvana and the White Stripes have covered his songs and recognized his musical influence.

Somewhat less remembered, even locally, is Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues," a song written about his first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1937 — an incisive indictment of the city's racial segregation conveyed in 3 minutes of rippling 12-string blues.

Woody Guthrie, 1943 (Library of Congress)

How Washington Saved Folk Music

Sure, it seems a bit counter-intuitive. How could the favorite subject of protest music also be its greatest protector? Well, believe it. If it wasn't for Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress there might not be a Woody Guthrie — and thus by extension — a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen, and well … you get the rest. In March 1940, Lomax arranged for Guthrie to travel to Washington, D.C. to record traditional ballads and his original songs at the Department of the Interior recording lab. What emerged from three days of sessions is one of the purest documents of Americana ever released.