With all the acclaim that an artist and songwriter like Woody Guthrie gets, it’s amazing that one of his contemporaries gets overlooked in the broader strokes of history. Of course, it helps when a song like “This Land Is Your Land” becomes part of the tapestry of American music—hell, it’s practically a national anthem—but Guthrie himself was fond of his friend Huddie (pronounced Hew-dee) Ledbetter’s musical talents. Smithsonian Folkways won a Grammy in 2013 for a box set celebrating Guthrie’s output, and they may well do the same for this detailed look at Lead Belly’s legacy.
Similar in format, the set is a 12” x 12” coffee table book that includes a substantial portion of CDs accompanying it. When taken in full, it presents a broader picture of the man with stunning photos from throughout his life, one in particular where he is entertaining a crowd at a nightclub with each patron hanging on every word; with essays and writing by Jeff Place, Robert Santelli and Tiny Robinson (Lead Belly’s niece); with photos of ephemera, album covers and recording ledgers; and all done with a meticulous eye for design and care for its subject.
The music included merely provides a snapshot of Lead Belly’s output, which ended in the late 1940s due to a medical condition, ALS, that would soon take his life. Across 108 tracks, 16 of which were previously unreleased, we primarily hear two instruments: a 12-string Stella guitar and Lead Belly’s weathered and beautiful voice. The recordings sound surprisingly crisp given their age, and the few ticks and cutouts you do hear only add an ambiance to the experience, like an AM signal that is wavering in strength.
For the size of man he appears to be in the pictures, Lead Belly’s voice isn’t as husky as one would think. Instead it lives in the tenor range, bouncing from honesty to weariness at the drop of a hat depending upon the subject of the song. Lead Belly didn’t pen everything on the collection, although he was certainly handy with one. His talent most shone through with his interpretation of whatever material he chose to sing or record, be it standards of the folk, jazz or blues canons.
Still, with all the hubbub about his talent, he never achieved a spot in the limelight during his lifetime quite like one with such an astonishing amount of recorded output would normally have received. His reading of “Irene (Goodnight Irene),” with its 3/4 waltz feel, would inspire a No. 1 recording by The Weavers in 1950, the year after Lead Belly’s death. Jack White thinks highly enough of “Irene” to use it as a closing song for his marathon sets.
In a different recording style, he also sings the blues on a beautiful version of “House Of The Rising Sun,” the one that The Animals would top the charts with 15 years after his death, as well as on “Packing Trunk Blues” and “I’m So Glad, I Done Got Over.” The last two discs focus on tracks from radio sessions aired or recorded primarily in the 1940s (where dates are known) and from his final recording sessions.
Huddie Ledbetter passed away in December 1949 at Bellevue Hospital. As the death certificate shows in the book, his occupation is listed as “Musician.” And while that may be true, it’s a short shrift notation for a life full of inspiration, both that of what he sung and what he instilled in a generation of his peers and those to come.