Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Lead Belly is perhaps more remembered than listened to these days. His reputation as a mean man (he served two sentences for manslaughter with the story going that he sang his way out of doing his full time so impressed were the governors with his music) preceded him and was often used as a hook to draw audiences in when he played. “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides” was one headline in the New York press. Since his death in 1949 and especially following the folk blues revival of the sixties his music managed to escape the shadow of the penitentiaries and many of his songs found their way into the popular canon. Dig through any half decent music collection and there are bound to be Lead Belly songs in there, he’s been covered by Lonnie Donegan, Ry Cooder, Tom Jones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pete Seeger, Led Zeppelin and Nirvana among others while songs such as Irene Goodnight, Midnight Special, Black Betty and Rock Island Line are pretty much standards.
As is often the case with vintage blues there are numerous Lead Belly albums on CD available and it’s a bit of a hit or miss regarding the quality of some of these. Good news then that Smithsonian Folkway have decided to follow up their definitive Woody Guthrie Centennial box set with this Lead Belly Collection that includes 108 songs (16 previously unreleased) on five discs and a 140-page book. It’s a comprehensive document that includes rare live radio recordings with Lead Belly an engaging raconteur as he ranges from folk to blues to Tin Pan Alley songs. Remastered for the collection the sound is for the most part excellent and while many of the songs will be familiar there’s a wealth of material that will be unknown to any but the most rabid collector. The accompanying book is a treasure trove in itself with essays that cover his life and his legacy. The full story of his release from prison, his troubled relationship with Alan Lomax and his friendship with Woody Guthrie are all covered and there are extensive notes for all of the songs.
Hop on over to the Smithsonian Folkway’s website where you can watch a watch a video of the actual contents.