Eric Bibb & JJ Milteau,
Lead Belly's Gold
(Stony Plain, 2015)

Steve Howell & the Mighty Men,
Friend Like Me
(Out of the Past Music, 2015)

Two thoroughly enjoyable recordings revisit classic American folk songs and blues. Labors of love, they communicate both the enduring power of this extraordinary music and the range of emotions and experiences it conveys. Fittingly, the musicians don't try to copy the originals. At the same time their readings keep the spirit intact, serving to link past to present in a circle that cannot be broken. In an age when so much music is just another corporate product meant to sell quickly, then to be relegated to extinction as soon as the next salable item is introduced, it's a small miracle that traditional music continues to be sung and recorded by informed, talented artists like these.

Singer/guitarist Eric Bibb is best known for performing his own material, alongside the occasional folk, blues or gospel number. He grew up amid the New York City folk revival as the son of singer/actor Leon Bibb, who died this past October 23. Lead Belly's records were a part of daily life in the household; Leon had even seen Lead Belly on stage. (Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter died in 1949.) In short, Lead Belly is not a recent acquaintance to Eric Bibb who, with French harmonica player JJ Milteau, has created the celebratory Lead Belly's Gold.

Of the disc's 16 cuts, the first 11 are live, performed before an audience in a Paris jazz club. Bibb (with Milteau's co-write in one instance) contributes three Lead Belly-themed originals. (The last song I heard about Lead Belly, by the way, was really, really terrible. Happily, these are all good ones.) The other cuts are familiar Lead Belly standards, including some known to persons who may never have heard of him, notably, "House of the Rising Sun," "Goodnight, Irene" and "Rock Island Line." To credit a song to Lead Belly, however, is not necessarily to equate it to certain, unequivocal personal authorship. "Rock Island" began its life as an early 20th-century version of an advertising jingle before it underwent transformation after it entered tradition. "Irene" has its roots in an 1886 sentimental popular piece written by African American composer Gussie Davis (1863-1899); Lead Belly's version is considerably reworked, and better. "House of the Rising Sun" is, as Bibb remarks in the liner notes, of murky origin, but there seems no question that it began its life in England, not in New Orleans.

Bibb is a superb vocalist and guitarist with a style distinct from Lead Belly's. Actually, where African American roots artists are concerned, he is more reminiscent of Lead Belly's contemporary Josh White, who adapted traditional songs for night-club presentation. At the time hard-core, if misguided, folkniks looked askance, however hard that is to believe these days. Something of a genius, White opened new possibilities for urban performers of rural music. For his part Bibb turns Lead Belly songs into personal statements in the manner of an interpreter in complete command of the material.

The liner notes are focused more on Lead Belly as a political figure than on his complicated life and musical history. For the latter you'll have to hunt up Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell's The Life & Legend of Leadbelly (1992), so far the only major biography. Where Lead Belly's role as a singing critic of racism is concerned, Bibb relates a riveting, borderline-unbelievable anecdote from the father of a friend. The man claimed to have been present when the events recounted in "Bourgeois Blues" (which no one doubts was entirely a Lead Belly creation, based on an unhappy encounter) took place one evening in 1938.

One final observation: Bibb and associates are too knowledgeable to pigeonhole Lead Belly as a blues singer, which many are wont to do at the very sight of a black musician with an acoustic guitar in hand. Lead Belly recorded a number of blues tunes, and he did them (as everything else) with power and conviction, but his repertoire was far from confined to that single genre. In the rural black Southern America Huddie Ledbetter grew up in, he would have been called a songster, the sort of eclectic performer we today would label a folk singer.

On Friend Like Me, Texas folk and blues singer/guitarist Steve Howell integrates a small electric outfit into his treatment of 10 songs culled from tradition, the Rev. Gary Davis, Bukka White, Jesse "Baby Face" Thomas, Cannon's Jug Stompers and more. Two of the 10 cuts, Noah Lewis's "Viola Lee Blues" and John Phillips's "Me & My Uncle," happen to have been Grateful Dead favorites that over the band's long history never entirely left its song-list; probably only a relative handful of us have heard other versions. Howell's are closer in spirit to the originals, laid down sparely and tastefully. Howell sings in a charmingly natural, conversational voice. Throughout, he and the three Mighty Men conjure up a back porch of the imagination, and a most pleasant place to plant oneself it is.

Though every song triggers joy, my particular favorite is "This Old Hammer." It will remind you, if you know it, of Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues," which is less a variant of the celebrated ballad "John Henry" than a commentary upon it -- virtually the definition, in short, of what folksong scholars have come to call a blues ballad. It is a song that, in this splendid rendition, beguiles and haunts. Howell and the boys inhabit it as if ghosts drawn to a desolate landscape. In the process they'll call up rich memories you didn't know you had. For that and more, Friend feels like a friend indeed.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 November 2015

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