Dan Zanes & Billy Bragg Cover Lead Belly’s Iconic ‘Rock Island Line’: Exclusive Premiere

Because Lead Belly is “the reason I play music,” Dan Zanes has been champing at the bit to do something with the Americana legend’s catalog. 

He’s finally accomplished that with Lead Belly, Baby!, another of Zanes’ family music albums that comes out Aug. 25 featuring collaborations with a batch of friends — including British troubadour Billy Bragg on “Rock Island Line,” premiering exclusively below. 

“I got turned on to Lead Belly when I was seven years old and had a library card and fell in love with the picture on the cover of the record I found there,” Zanes tells Billboard. “And the music really set my mind on fire. It made me want to play. And then when I started doing family music I was really thinking back to when I was a kid and what that Lead Belly Music meant to me. So it’s an honor to me to be able to celebrate him in this way.”

Zanes, who had the full cooperation of the Lead Belly estate in making the 15-song project, adds that he considers Lead Belly’s songs to be the ultimate music for all ages. “It’s a shared experience,” he explains. “It was music that the whole family listened to. I was never trying to make children’s music, but I was trying to make music that could be a shared experience, and Lead Belly’s music was the template. Basically it was the template for everything I’ve done.”

Zanes actually tried to make a Lead Belly record three times before, and “each time something about it didn’t feel right.” A shift in perspective, however, made it finally work for Lead Belly, Baby!. “I finally realized I wanted to imagine what lead Belly would be doing today and what his life would be like today,” Zanes says. “It’s a big guess, but I think if Lead Belly were alive today in New York he’d be listening to hip-hop, ’cause he loved wordplay, and he’d be listening to music with heavy percussion — cumbia, salsa, that kind of thing. Once I got that it was easy.”

Lead Belly, Baby‘s guest list reflects that diversity, with artists such as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Aloe Blacc, Valerie June, Memphis Jelks, Tamar Kali, Sonia de los Santos and others joining Zanes. Bragg, meanwhile, was a no-brainer for “Rock Island Line,” a key song in the evolution of Britain’s skiffle culture, and he even brought some insight into the recording session in the basement of Zanes’ Brooklyn home.

“Billy told me things I didn’t know about it,” Zanes recalls. “He showed up with a whole headfull of information about ‘Rock Island Line,’ and he was very clear in feeling that Lead Belly is underappreciated. I mean, you can’t say too much about the importance of Lead Belly in skiffle music in England; ‘Rock Island Line’ was an anthem and ignited skiffle in England, which in turn fired the British Invasion. So when you think about rock n’ roll music, Lead Bell is a cornerstone.”

Zanes says a second volume of Lead Belly music would be “no problem,” but right now his attention is turning to another project. He and fiancee Claudia Eliaza have been commissioned by the Kennedy Center to write and record a sensory-friendly “folk opera” called Night Train 57, which will premiere Oct. 6-8 and be recorded for release. And he says Lead Belly’s music helped fuel that project as well.

“Sensory friendly is the future of family programming, without a doubt,” Zanes says. “It just opened the door wider and there’s a spirit of inclusion and participation and looking around and making sure everybody has a way in. That was what Lead Belly’s music did for me — it opened doors. It was a vehicle for social change and social commentary and the spirit of community, just like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger talked about, too. And sensory friendly, to me, is an outgrowth of that. So the two (projects) really do connect in my mind.”

Lead Belly, Baby! Track List (pre-order here)
1. More Yet (feat. Shareef Swindell)
2. Rock Island Line (feat. Billy Bragg)
3. Ha-Ha This-A-Way (feat. Tamar Kali)
4. Julie Ann Johnson (feat. Jendog Lonewolf)
5. Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie (feat. Madame Marie Jean Laurent & Ceddyjay)
6. Polly Wee (feat. Father Goose and Little Goose)
7. Boll Weevil (feat. Aloe Blacc and Pauline Jean)
8. New York City (feat. Claudia Eliaza)
9. Skip to My Lou (feat. Chuck D. and Memphis Jelks)
10. Take This Hammer (feat. Valerie June)
11. Cotton Fields (feat. Sonia de los Santos, Elena Moon Park, & José Joaquin Garcia)
12. Red Bird (feat. Ashley Phillips)
13. Whoa Back Buck (feat. Donald Saaf with Isak and Ole)
14. Stewball (feat. Marley Reedy)
15. Relax Your Mind (feat. Neha Jiwrajka)

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