A year or so ago I received in the mail a letter and a large (11.9 x 9.2), and thick, (1.1 inches) coffee table book from a man named John Reynolds. The book was entitled, Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, published by the very fine book company, Steidl.
The note from Reynolds was short and to the point. “Here is a copy of my published book on Lead Belly. It is dedicated to Sean Killeen who served with his wife in Turkey as a Peace Corps volunteer. Sean founded the Lead Belly Society and published its award-winning Lead Belly Letter. He did much to spread the gospel of Lead Belly here and abroad.” That was all.
Like most everyone else, I am a fan of Lead Belly’s music, but what made me curious was why would John Reynolds go out of his way to tell me about Sean Killeen? We all have our passions. Sean Killeen obvious so loved the music of Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, that he had created a fan letter society for the man who had died of ALS in 1949.
For those few who might not know, Lead Belly is credited with having written hundreds of songs including “Goodnight Irene,” “C.C. Rider,” “John Henry,” and “Midnight Special.” He was born in Louisiana in 1888 and was a wandering balladeer. In 1918 he killed a man, claiming it was self defense, and was sentenced to a chain gang in the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Pardoned in 1925, he served time again in 1930 for attempted murder, and once more in 1939 for assault.
Lead Belly was ‘discovered’ in prison by folklorist John A. Lomax who published his songs and brought him to New York where Lead Belly’s thick Southern accent and his 12-string guitar brought him fame, if not fortunes.
Lead Belly’s story is well known. I need not tell it again. But what about RPCV Sean Killeen? And why would a stranger, John Reynolds, seek me out so I might know and perhaps give credit to an RPCV who had started a forgotten news letter about an old time blues man?
You see, Sean Killeen is dead. He had been dead since 2003, dying at the age of 60 alone and in a hotel room in Nashville where he had gone to address a national folk music convention. He was scheduled to give a talk entitled, “Huddie Ledbetter: The Man Behind the Legend” when he suffered a heart attack.
But Sean’s death is not the end of his story. He had left his own legacy and when I went looking, I found a story that had passed under the radar of attention and fame. Nevertheless, he was an RPCV who made a real difference. And his was a rich life.
He had joined the Peace Corps with his wife Madeline in 1964 and served two years in Turkey, then was drafted into the army in 1966 and spent two years in Heidelberg, West Germany. For the next ten years, Madeline and Sean lived and taught in Turkey, Ireland and Iran.
Returning to the U.S. he became the executive director of Cornell University’ Einaudi Center for International Studies, a position he held for another ten years. He was also on Ithaca’s Common Council, representing the Third Ward, which included the neighborhoods where Cornell students lived, for students and their issues were always important to Sean, recalled the mayor of Ithaca at that time. One of Sean’s last full time jobs was police commissioner for the City of Ithaca.
In 1990, he founded the Lead Belly Letter because, his family says, he had decided he was going to become an expert on Lead Belly and tell people about this musician whom Sean thought was under-appreciated. Killeen published his newsletter until 1996. In the last years of his life, even when he was in failing health, he was a volunteer election monitor for the United Nations, supervising elections in the Balkan states, as well as in the republics of the former Soviet Union. He made seven trips alone to monitor local and national elections in Bosnia.
His son Amon says today that his father’s interest in international affairs began in the Peace Corps in Turkey. “That gave him an interest in what was happening in the world and it stuck with him.”
We are all victims of our experience. Our experiences shape us like birthmarks. As an undergraduate at Penn State, Sean, by chance, overheard a Lead Belly record being played in a dorm room. “From that time on,” he said, “I tried to acquire and learn more about Lead Belly.” He had plans to write a book detailing not only the musical, but the social and historical aspects of the balladeer’s life. He saw the book as a record of an era which included the Deep South, pre-industrial, post-Civil War Reconstruction and race relations in the North and South, as well as a history of music.
He never wrote that book, but the Lead Belly Letter he started in 1990 was his gift to others to continue his work and write their own books. And one man did. John Reynold, another Lead Belly fan and collector, and a friend of Sean Killeen. He has written and published a beautiful book about Lead Belly that he dedicated to the memory of Sean Killeen.
And John Reynold sent the book to me because he wanted all of us — Sean Killeen’s Peace Corps family — to know what a treasure Sean Killeen really was, and what a legacy this man left to the world.
Thank you, John, for remember us, but most of all, for remembering and honoring Sean Killeen.