Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection | Album Review

leadbellycdLead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings – 2015


5 CDs – 109 Songs

Includes  140-page, large-format book

We can perhaps forgive Moe Asch, who recorded Lead Belly extensively for his Asch, Disc, and Folkways labels for a little exaggeration. Asch is quoted in the book accompanying the five-disc box set Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, … we had a life together for about twenty years in which he recorded for me over 500 different songs.” The author of the book and co-producer of the box set, Jeff Place, sets the record straight: it was eight years. Leadbelly’s recording career actually ran a total of fifteen years, and interestingly, he answers a question about how many songs he knows on a 1941 radio show in New York, which is only newly available to us now in this set, reissued from a transcription record, saying he knows 500 songs.

In his introduction to the book, the box set’s co-producer Robert Santelli offers a familiar quote from Woodie Guthrie: “Leadbelly  is a hard name. And the hard name of a harder man.” Huddie Ledbetter apparently acquired the nickname Lead Belly while an inmate at Sugarland Prison in Texas in the 1920s, and for some decades it was rendered as “Leadbelly,” which is still probably its more familiar form, though his family has said it should be two words – – which is how it appears in the Blues Foundation’s list of Blues Hall of Fame inductees as well.

The box set offers us plenty of information, and the music to go with it, about this singular figure in American folk and blues music. While there are places in his well-known story where fact may give way to legend, the familiar story of a man with a 12-string guitar and a bottomless supply of songs who did serious time in prison for violent crimes and “sang his way out of prison,” not once but twice, is largely accurate. Lead Belly was born in rural post-Reconstruction Louisiana, where anger about losing the Civil War connected synergistically with resentment about Reconstruction to produce virulent racism, exemplified by, but not limited to, the Ku Klux Klan. Given such adverse circumstances, Huddie Ledbetter may still have been initially better off than some of his contemporaries, growing up in an intact family with parents determined to get ahead economically and socially.

Lead Belly’s first instrument was actually a button accordion, and there are several dance tunes in this set where he plays it, including “Sukey Jump” and “John Hardy,” a song about an African-American outlaw in West Virginia that has been popular among folk performers for many decades, many of whom learned it from Lead Belly.

Visits to Shreveport, and to the area where there were some rough bars and brothels on Fannin Street, gave young Ledbetter exposure to other sides of life, and a song title too. “Fannin Street,” which was also known as “Mister Tom Hughes Town” and “Cry To Me,” but is best-remembered today as “Last Go-Round,” features Lead Belly’s guitar-style on his 12-string Stella at its best. Not as technically adept as Blind Lemon Jefferson, with whom he travelled for a while in the 1920s, Leadbelly still offers an absolutely identifiable signature as a guitarist, made bolder by the use of a 12-string. His frequent use of walking, boogie woogie-like, bass runs probably draws from boogie woogie piano music, which actually started itself in Texas and Louisiana where he was based. Lead Belly often uses a descending bass line, major seventh to fifth to root, only half a step from Jefferson’s distinctive seventh, fifth, root.

“One Dime Blues,” a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, taken from an undated acetate recording is listed as also being entitled “Fore-Day Blues,” though on Lead Belly’s discussion of the song before he plays it, he is clearly talking about “four-way,” and also “three-way” blues. He is likely referring to the fact that the song uses an a-a-a-b (three matching lines and an answering line) theme, instead of the familiar a-a-b blues theme (two matching lines and an answering line).

Lead Belly’s talk about his songs and their history is of great interest throughout the set, occurring in formal settings such as the radio shows, and informal ones. The fifth and final disc in the set offers recordings from Lead Belly’s last sessions, recorded by Frederic Ramsey using an exciting technological innovation, a tape recorder, which allowed for longer recording durations – – and for Lead Belly to ask him to play back what was just recorded, which he does on a song Lead Belly composed on the spur of the moment about then Princess Elizabeth of England getting married in 1953.

“Princess Elizabeth” is an example of one type of song Lead Belly did – songs about current events. Lead Belly also wrote a “news” song called “The Hindenburg Disaster.”  He also drew on blues songs that other artists had recorded for commercial releases, including Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey’s “It’s Tight Like That,” Washboard Sam’s “Diggin’ My Potatoes,” Leroy Carr’s “How Long, How Long,” Bumble Bee Slim’s “Sail On Little Girl,” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s aforementioned “One Dime Blues.” The father-son team of John and Alan Lomax, who helped him get his second prison pardon, from Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen, had gone into prisons hoping to find some almost mythological sort of “pure” folk music, uncontaminated by the commercial music business. Yet when Lead Belly joined them as a driver and assistant, he picked up songs in prisons they visited, including “Rock Island Line” at Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas, which he adapted to his liking, making it his own. There have been many cover versions since. The folk process drew no boundaries around any kind of songs.

Lead Belly’s repertoire was full of work songs, many acquired no doubt in prison, such as “Black Betty,” “Linin’ Track,” and “Haul Away Joe” (an adaption of a sea chanty). He did plenty of children’s songs and seemed to have a special delight for them, and he sang his fair share of spirituals. Plus, he wrote a large number of new songs, such as “Irene, Goodnight.” That song topped the charts recorded by The Weavers, including his friend Pete Seeger, in 1950, just a year after his death.  Others of his songs became folk-revival classics like “Bourgeois Blues.” That song could probably be more accurately entitled “Racist Blues,” (it’s about racism, not bourgeois capitalism) but Lead Belly had acquired the word “bourgeois” from his left-leaning friends such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and wanted to use it in a song. The song is probably more memorable because of its title.

The large number of songs of many sorts in this set make it clear why it isn’t possible to describe Lead Belly with a simple category label like “folk” or “blues.” “Songster” used by John Lomax is descriptive. That word may not have been well-used during Lead Belly’s lifetime, but it appears in the title of the very first release in 1960 by the now-celebrated folk label Arhoolie Records, an album by Mance Lipscomb, whose style – – a hard driving, anchoring bass line, with simple but incisive leads on the higher strings, certainly evokes Lead Belly’s style.

The songs, together with the extensive information and analysis offered by producers Place and Santelli, present both Lead Belly’s contradictions – – a poor man who dressed to the nines for at-home jam sessions with wealthier friends who wore blue-collar work clothes, and a convicted murderer who sang wonderful children’s songs and beautiful love songs – – and his consistencies – – a love for all sorts of music and a unique talent for making songs his own.

What you won’t find in •Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection• are his commercially released recordings. None of these were successful sellers, but some do feature his piano work, which, like his guitar playing, was not technically dazzling but did possess a very identifiable signature. There is only one song on which he plays piano in this set, and it isn’t one of his best on that instrument.

Like many African-American blues and folk artists, even to this day, Lead Belly faced the problem that, to his fellow African-Americans, his music was anachronistic and a reminder of times and places not fondly remembered, appealing more to white audiences, some of whom could be cluelessly condescending, and often possessing political ideas not always so cherished by the artist.

His major influence was to other musicians. From The Weavers, to Lonnie Donegan – – England’s “skiffle” star who was a major influence not only to The Beatles but to England’s greatest folk artists including Martin Carthy – – to Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, Tom Jones, Curt Cobain (who sang a chilling version of “Black Girl Where Did You Stay Last Night),” and many others. The Animals picked up “House Of The Rising Sun” from him, though he probably got it from commercial recordings by Clarence Ashley or Roy Acuff.

Lead Belly died in 1949 shortly after his first and only trip to perform in Europe. Surely there would have been more and larger tours if he had lived, and some major place for him in the incipient folk revival, if not actual popular music hits from some of the songs he already had or new ones. He was a key, special link in the folk process of his time, extending beyond the boundaries of what was considered “folk music.” The box set Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection presents us with a compelling selection of his music, and informative and thought-provoking information about the man and the times behind it.

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