The Legend of Leadbelly
(Tradition, 1939;
Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

If you are too young to know who Leadbelly was, the fact is you still know his music. Many of his songs have become folk and pop standards -- "Goodnight, Irene," "John Hardy" and "Silvy" appeared on almost evey album released during the great folk scare of the 1960s, and later on rockers began covering his songs. Where would Led Zeppelin be without "Gallows Pole" and who can imagine Nirvana without "In the Pines"?

The man himself was as powerful as his songs. As a boy, he learned to play the 12-string guitar and traveled around with Blind Lemon Jefferson, playing and singing the blues, until the blues got too real: He was convicted of killing a man in a brawl and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He became the first and so far only man in Texas history to sing his way out of prison. In January 1925 he sang a song for the governor, begging for a pardon, and the governor was so moved that he came through. For five years, Leadbelly was a free man, but by 1930 he was doing time again, this time in Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana. There folklorist John Lomax found him on a song-collecting mission. Blown away by his music, Lomax began working to get Leadbelly released and on Dec. 31, 1934, Leadbelly, a free man at last, arrived in New York City to begin his recording career.

The songs on this album are his first commercial recordings, so they are from that period and they are superb. Except for one track with Sonny Terry on harmonica and another with Josh White playing second guitar, they are just Leadbelly and his 12-string -- a huge, powerful voice and a guitar sound just as big and powerful. His singing and playing are primitive, unpolished and strong enough to reduce bricks to dust.

Leadbelly is best known as a bluesman and certainly that genre is well represented. The classic "Bourgeois Blues," "Po' Howard" and "De Kalb Blues" are all here. There's even a fine version of Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues." But that's not all there is to the disc. Leadbelly was a well-rounded performer who bristled when record companies tried to confine him to the blues. He also sings ballads, folk material and even a couple of cowboy songs.

Whatever he's singing, from his first few notes, you know you're in the hands of a master. The Legend of Leadbelly is an album of historical importance but it's also damn fine music that everyone with any interest in folk or the blues will want to listen to again and again. You might know the cover versions but you don't know the music until you've heard the originals. And to not know this music is a shame.

by Michael Scott Cain
23 December 2006

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