Family keeps Lead Belly’s legend alive

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Queen Tiny Robinson and Tonya Singh lead the Lead Belly Foundation.
The organization dedicated to preserving the music of legendary blues and folk musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, hopes to have a music archive and museum open in Murfreesboro within five years.

“When you begin to see how people feel about his music, all you want to do is continue to share it,” said Tonya Singh, director of the Lead Belly Foundation.

Lead Belly’s niece and Singh’s grandmother Queen Tiny Robinson formed the foundation in 1992 to assure the long-term access to Lead Belly’s music collections and memorabilia and to preserve his gravesite in Mooringsport, La.

Four years ago, the foundation expanded its mission and began awarding music scholarships to low-income school-age children. So far, 12 scholarships have been awarded nationally.

“So many children want music lessons but their parents can’t afford it,” Singh said.

The scholarships are awarded to any child with at least a C grade-point average who has the desire to play any music instrument. The student must have two references, and the parents or guardian must commit to taking their child to the music lessons.

As of right now, there are no monetary or time restrictions on the scholarships.

Donations also are made to school districts lacking funds for music education. Contributions have been made to Nashville Metro Schools and Shreveport, La. area schools.

The Lead Belly Foundation also preserves the musician’s legacy through music festivals and is the presenting sponsor of the third annual Boro Blues Fest slated for Sept. 12-13.

Singh said the foundation wants to be a part of bringing more entertainment and culture to Murfreesboro.

The inaugural Lead Belly Festival will take place in Shreveport, La. near the musician’s birthplace. The May 9 festival will feature such performers as Bobby Rush and Kenny Neal.

“Doing a festival in his honor has always been a dream of my grandmother’s,” Singh said.

Singh said the Lead Belly Foundation also is in talks with Central Middle School for the creation of an after-school music program.

Other foundation goals include a health initiative to promote and support health care for musicians since Lead Belly suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease and doctors felt he would have lived longer with better healthcare, Singh said.

Robinson is the primary monetary contributor to The Lead Belly Foundation. The foundation is based in Murfreesboro since most of Robinson’s family had relocated to the area from New York.

The virtuoso guitar player known for such songs as “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special” is known for his run-ins with the law as much as he is his music.

Most notably, Lead Belly was incarcerated in Texas in 1918 for killing one of his relatives in a fight over a woman. Gov. Pat Morris Neff pardoned him in 1925 after Lead Belly wrote him a song asking for his freedom.

In prison again in 1930, Lead Belly was discovered by musicologists John and Alan Lomax. He was let out of prison in 1934 after the Lomaxes petitioned for his release.

Lead Belly received national recognition for his playing and singing from 1933 until his death in 1949. Today, he is remembered as the “King of the 12-String Guitar” and is said to have influenced the likes of The Beatles, Robert Plant and Eric Clapton.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Robinson lived with Lead Belly until he died.

“Every night, the house was full of people,” she said.

Musicians like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger would stay at his home until late in the night.

Robinson also remembers his love for children. The musician would always stop and perform for children when asked.

That’s why in her uncle’s name Robinson makes sure his musical tradition is passed on.

“That is the important part to me,” she said.

Erin Edgemon can be reached at 869-0812 and at

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Members Opinions:
September 07, 2008 at 12:00am
With so many deserving charities out there, why this? Maybe it's a tax gimmick.
September 07, 2008 at 12:00am
I think you are missing the point. It isn't a charity. It is a foundation aimed at preserving the music and tradition of Lead Belly.
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