Lead Belly -The King Of The Twelve-String Guitar | Album Review

Lead Belly – The King of the Twelve String Guitar

Wolf Records

24 songs time-68:59

The Austrian imprint Wolf Records has released twenty-four of the iconic folk slash blues singer Lead Belly’s best and most well known songs on one CD. His remaining catalog of songs is extensive. The songs included here were recorded in New York City between 1935 and 1944. Huddie William Ledbetter was discovered by American musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933 while he was incarcerated in a prison farm. There they recorded him for the Library Of Congress and returned a year later to record hundreds of his songs. A petition from the Lomaxes and his great recordings hastened his early release from prison according to legend. Previous to recording Lead Belly performed with the legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson around Dallas, Texas. The instrumental “Blind Lemon (Memorial Record)” appears here as his nod to that era of his life.

Lead Belly served several prison terms over the course of his life, adding to his legend. His crimes included murdering a family member and a stabbing. His repertoire consisted of songs he heard and adapted along with songs from his own pen. I as many people are mainly familiar with his material from the many cover versions of his songs from folk singers, bluesmen and rock performers alike. As he died in 1949 I was vaguely familiar with him from various documentaries over the years, but never fully realized the power and expressiveness of his voice. The songs here are performed by him with his twelve-string guitar, accompanied by The Golden Gate Quartet, Josh White on guitar and vocals and with blues harmonica great Sonny Terry.

Other than many of his songs covered by various and sundry folk and blues performers, a few received wider recognition from rock performers. Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded a memorable interpretation of his “Midnight Special”, while the New York based rock band Ram Jam scored their only hit with a vamped up and elongated version of “Black Betty”. Britisher Lonnie Donnegan started the skiffle craze with his energetic and revved-up version of “Rock Island Line”. Over the years snippets of songs he performed were incorporated into newer songs. He was known to borrow lines from other songs. A line from “Cat Fish Blues” pops up in his “Easy Rider”. His influence on music culture is felt to this day.

Tunes such as “Pick A Bale Of Cotton”, “On A Monday”, “(Good Night) Irene”, “Rock Island Line” and “Midnight Special” were staples of the folk movement. Lead Belly performed along side of folk and blues contemporaries of his day such as Woody Guthrie, Josh White and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. Sonny Terry’s signature exuberant harmonica playing propels “On A Monday” and the blues of “Outskirts Of Town”. He also appears on what is usually considered Lead Belly’s signature song, “(Good Night) Irene”.

Lead Belly’s songs were widely popular during his life time. His strong voice combined with his dexterity on the twelve-string guitar made his songs compelling to audiences of his day. At one point he had his own radio show. As on two songs included here, he could deliver just as well with no instrumental accompaniment, as on the medley of “Looky Looky Younder/Black Betty/Yellow Womens Door Bells(On a Monday)”. On “Rock Island Line” he is backed only by the vocal Golden Gate Quartet, who appear on three other songs in this collection. Folk singer Josh White lends guitar and/or vocal support on two tracks.

Aside from some of his more frivolous songs, he did more serious things like his commentary on the treatment of blacks in “The Bourgeois Blues” and “T.B. Blues”.

The quality of the recordings vary from crystal clear to scratchy, as apparently some songs were only available from old 78’s, but everything is very listenable.

From his more familiar songs to the more obscure ones, they are all compelling and worth a listen, as they are an important part of this country’s musical heritage. This CD is a good starting point for the uninitiated to Lead Belly’s vast catalog of American music. This is a treasure trove of this man’s music.

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