Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2015)

Lead Belly is one of those iconic names people recognize, even if they're not enthralled with his music.

His music has been recorded many times and widely covered by other musicians. Now the Smithsonian has issued a five-disc collection of 108 songs, including 16 previously unreleased. This review is of selections from this major collection -- 10 tracks representing some of his best-known compositions and arrangements.

Huddie William Ledbetter covered a whole spectrum of musical styles in his lifetime, though he's most associated with the blues and folk music. In fact, many authorities contend there wouldn't even have been a folk music revival in the 1960s without his influence.

With his distinctive voice, often punctuated with grunts and other sounds, and proficiency on the 12-string guitar (one of a number of instruments he played), there's no mistaking a Lead Belly performance, whether it's the familiar "Irene" or one of the lesser-known selections like "Princess Elizabeth."

He composed numerous songs now associated with the genre and collected thousands more that may have been lost otherwise in a musical career that began in his early teens.

Alcohol and a volatile temper landed him in jail repeatedly in his 20s, and he was serving a stretch for murder when folklorist John Lomax "discovered" him in Angola Prison. Petitions (and, according to legend) a recording sent to Louisiana's governor earned him a pardon and launched him on concert tours and a recording contract under the guidance of Lomax, who he served for a time as his chauffeur.

He didn't enjoy wide popular acclaim during his lifetime and the smaller circles where he did achieve fame often centered on his reputation as a convict who sung his way out of prison rather than on his talent. But his legacy lives on through his influence on folk, rock and other forms of music and in songs like "Black Girl, Where Did You Sleep Last Night," "Goodnight Irene," "Rock Island Line" and others among the 10 tracks on this selection.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
John Lindermuth

26 September 2015

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