“Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection” by Lead Belly

Lead Belly
Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Smithsonian Folkways
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Lead Belly was from Van Morrison, on his masterwork album Astral Weeks (1968). Amidst the stream-of-consciousness lyrics there aren’t many concrete concepts or identifiable characters, but there in the title track Van is “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall.” One biographer puts this down to Van’s being known to keep a poster of Lead Belly with him to put on the wall of whatever room he crashed in, giving us the picture of the diminutive Ulsterman home from the pub lying on the floor looking up at the legendary singer while drifting off to dream of all the weird, exciting American music that came from his father’s vast record collection.

The world of blues and jazz and country in the South was strange and distant even for American musicians of the rock generation, much less the son of a shipyard electrician living in a block of flats on Hyndford Street, Belfast. The distance was not a temporal one—the great musicians of the first generation of recorded music were either not long dead or, in dozens of cases, still alive and even performing—but rather one of geography, class, and (often) race. The story of how those distances were bridged in America, and much of the West, is one that begins with music, and the technologies of radio and recording that allowed individual souls to affect each other viscerally and emotionally in a way that only the highly literate were able to experience before.

Born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jan. 20, 1888 at Mooringsport, Louisiana, Lead Belly was one of the key musicians to come of age in the dawn of the recording era, and his peculiar talent as a gatherer of songs kept much of the music that black Americans sang in church, in the fields, and in prison alive long enough to be captured by machines—just as A.P. Carter, with help from his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle, did for the music of Appalachia.

Lead Belly did it so well that if one wanted to pick a place to start listening to and learning about 20th Century American popular music, a perfect place to start would be Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection. Listening to more than five hours of his recordings on these five compact discs (including some live recordings and an entire disc of radio performances) it’s hard not to be amazed at Lead Belly’s ambit. He sangs both familiar and obscure—with musicianship and vocal styles both sophisticated and primal—in musical idioms like “play songs” for children, of-the-moment political broadsides, field hollers, work songs, minstrel tunes, bawdy blues, sanctified gospel, and—of course—prison songs.

Essential to understanding the man and his music—and the reason to spend $100 on the physical copy of this release—is the 140-page book that also occupies this gorgeous 12″ by 12″ package. Along with dozens of great photographs of Lead Belly and miscellaneous ephemera, there is documentation of and commentary on each track from project producers Jeff Place, Smithsonian Folkways archivist, and Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, who each contribute an essay that takes us far past Lead Belly’s legend to reveal the man.

That legend began in 1933 when John and Alan Lomax—the father-son team of song hunters who chased after music “uncontaminated” by modernity—found and recorded Lead Belly, who serving time for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary—tellingly known as Angola. When they returned the next year, Lead Belly was pardoned by Gov. O.K. Allen— for “good behavior” past his minimum sentence time, perhaps prompted by a song Lead Belly wrote about Allen—and returned with them to New York City, where headlines like this beckoned folk fans with a curiosity for the exotic:

leadhed

There is no doubt that this legend—buttressed by a newsreel reenactment of Lomax “discovering” Lead Belly at Angola, and the singer’s customary stage costume of prison garb or coveralls—helped sell the man and his music, not too different from the way  musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to 50 Cent have done it. No one bothered to note that Lead Belly’s homicide convictions all stemmed from drunken brawls, not train robberies or home invasions. Because urban blacks weren’t keen on being reminded of farm and prison life, Santelli notes, Lomax didn’t try marketing Lead Belly to them, but went right at the white liberals who liked politics with their pop culture in a way that Tom Wolfe later identified as radical chic.

A question that has to be asked is what part Lead Belly himself played in this hokum. He was a poor black man from the South in a country segregated by both law and custom; the best he could expect was paternalism—which he certainly got from the Lomaxes. More unfortunate is the glaringly obvious realization that King Kong was released just a few months before Lead Belly was “discovered,” an uncomfortable fact that even today informs any serious discussion of race and entertainment in America.

Lead Belly certainly knew what was going on, and he eventually broke with the Lomaxes over both the money and his role as convict/bumpkin. It seems reasonable to think that he simply thought of himself as a musician who wanted to work, and decided to put up with the hassle. Though did write and record some political songs (“Scottsboro Boys,” “We Shall Be Free,” with Woody Guthrie, “Jim Crow Blues,” “Bourgeois Blues”), he never became an activist. “He simply was willing to ignore our radical politics,” Pete Seeger said.

The last few years of his life did bring more artistic freedom and satisfaction than the years preceding it, thanks to Lead Belly’s association with small-time record label owner Moe Asch, a folk enthusiast who also recorded Guthrie, Seeger, and Cisco Houston. Instead of orchestrated studio sessions, Asch would merely make some suggestions on what to record then let his artists record live around an open mic. Asch treated these recordings with much more respect than those before (no more albums with titles like Negro Sinful Songs), but that didn’t result in better sales.

Musicologists Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith also recognized the value of Lead Belly’s art, and recorded him in 1948 on a new open-reel tape deck that allowed for longer recordings (including Lead Belly’s spoken introductions) than the wax cylinders that most previous recordings had been made on. The fifth disc in this collection is devoted to selected tracks from those Last Sessions, which Asch released on his new Folkways label in 1952 as two 2-LP sets—another new format, supplanting 78s.

Lead Belly always hoped and even believed, it seems, that his work would lead to wealth and notoriety—and it did. The year after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the Weavers sold half a million copies of their version of “Goodnight Irene,” helping folk music become noticed by enough post-war American record consumers to generate tremendous interest in the work of Lead Belly and his peers.

But none of this would have mattered if Lead Belly hadn’t been an excellent musician He didn’t just stand up and bash away on his trademark Stella 12-string guitar while simply belting out songs without nuance. As powerful as his voice could be, he always used it to serve the song and connect with the listener. Combine that—and his vast memory—with uncanny timing (“Out on the Western Plain,” “Rock Island Line,” “Alabama Bound” ) and deceptively intricate guitar work (“Fannin Street,” “Ella Speed”) and you have what Santelli calls “an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer” capable of playing just about anything someone waned to hear. Performances like “The Gallis Pole” and “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)” are as idiosyncratic and intense as anything done by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, or the Monroe Brothers (“The Gallis Pole” contains all the instrumental and vocal elements that Led Zeppelin tried to capture on their version, “Gallows Pole;” and “Black Girl” was reworked by Bill Monroe as the keening “In the Pines” and, in harrowing fashion, by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged).

There are countless musical phrases and lyrical allusions in this set that have echoed down through the years, and whether Lead Belly composed, modified, or simply recorded these songs, the shade his body of work casts is immense (click on any song title below to see how later musicians used Lead Belly’s material).

“The Midnight Special,” “John Henry,” “Take This Hammer,” “Alabama Bound,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Easy Rider,” “Duncan and Brady,” “How Long, How Long,” “John Hardy,” “Outskirts of Town,” “Black Betty,” “Stewball,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “On a Monday.”

“Irene (Goodnight Irene)” is, of course, the one song that Lead Belly will always be known for, though his version seems to be based on performances by Haverly’s Colored Minstrels of a composition by Gussie Davis. Its sentimental melody and macabre lyrics are made by Lead Belly’s mournful shout into an the kind of strange, unsettling experience that demands a response. It doesn’t seem right that it took the mawkish version of this song by the Weavers to introduce the post-war music industry to the man who, as much as anyone, created such a thing.

“Going Down to the River” by Doug Seegers

Doug Seegers
Going Down to the River
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It might be that my memory started playing tricks on me after I got the CD and read about Doug Seegers long journey in the music industry that included busking around Nashville , but I could swear I saw him busking on Broadway boot world a few years ago. I remember thinking that he was just a little too good to be out there doing that.

I’ll leave the biography for other articles, but I can tell you that though Seegers looks like a down-at-the-heels Hank Williams Sr. on the cover of Going Down to the River, he’s more than just a honky-tonker.

He does cover Hank’s “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight,” along with help from former bandmate Buddy Miller, with a herd-edged twang that also serves him well on “Pour Me,” which could have easily been written by Hank himself, but he’s also adept at other country styles. “Gotta Catch that Train” is a bit of Bob Wills mixed with modern-day Americana, and “Hard Working Man” and “Memory Lane” could have been mainstream country hits in the 1960s, though the stark lyrics to the latter are delivered with more real pain than just about anything from that era:

You’re my guardian angel
My addiction from Hell
But only Jesus really knows
All the love that I felt

“Burning a Hole in My Pocket” and “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again” have a bit of a Lyle Lovett feel, both lyrically and, with saxophones added, musically.

All of which is great, but it was the very slightest of letdowns after hearing the first four tracks, which had me held tight on first listen—and every one since.

Along with what’s now my favorite cover of Gram Parson’s “She” (with Emmylou Harris harmonizing with Seegers), “Going Down to the River” and “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” are right in the sweet spot, musically and lyrically, where Seegers just slays you with that lonesome, Johnny Rivers-tinged voice. With just a dash of Nick Lowe, “Angie’s Song” is the most soulfully pitiful song I’ve heard in quite a while, making me hope there’s more like this on Seegers’ next recording.

 

“Sixty” by John Cowan

John Cowan
Sixty
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Realizing that John Cowan is sixty years old comes as a bit of a shock. Listening to this album and hearing that he remains in full command of the clear, powerful voice that’s been one of the best in American music—since his days with New Grass Revival on up to his work with the Doobie Brothers today—is no surprise at all.

The 12-track, 45-minute Sixty is expertly produced by Doobie Brother John McFee (who also played the  legendary lead guitar part on Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and pedal steel on Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview), with a long, stellar list of Cowan’s peers on hand to create sounds big enough to support that great voice on a well-chosen list of songs.

“Things I Haven’t Done” sets the album’s expansive, yet unified tone (with Alison Brown on banjo and Rodney Crowell on backing vocal) that draws from the country/Americana side of things—Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi (and You),” some front-porch picking on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Why Are You Crying” with Chris Hillman (mandolin and vocals) and Bernie Leadon (banjo), and an all-star jam on Jesse Colin Young’s “Sugar Babe”—and from the rock/jam band sound—gritty covers of the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” and Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues.”

I’d have a hard time thinking of any other singers ambitious enough to tackle tracks as epic as the Blue Nile’s “Happiness” and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home;” each of these is a special favorites of mine in its original version, and Cowan sends chills up my spine with his performances here on perhaps his finest album yet.

“Sake of the Sound” by Front Country

Front Country
Sake of the Sound
Self-released
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman grabbed my attention with their 2013 album We Made it Home, where Walker’s “rich and sincere” voice, to quote myself, made an intimate, two-person acoustic record sound much grander than others like it.

The pair recorded that one after many miles on the road with their bluegrass band Front Country, which will be back out on the road soon to support Sake of the Sound, easily one of my favorite handful of bluegrass albums of the last few years.

Walker’s singing is also the best thing about this album—that the band follows her lead is evident from the first track, the traditional “Gospel Train” where the band’s thick rhythm chases her bluesy vocal—but her songwriting is equally impressive. She wrote just three of the dozen tracks here, but they’re the best three: the soaring “Colorado,” the tough “Undertaker,” and “Sake of the Sound,” which should be on the follow-up to the Voyager Golden Record so that whatever benighted life forms that exist light years away can get a taste of the incandescent joy that can be had from great music made only for the sake of making great music.

Helping Walker and Groopman (who each play guitar and sing) are Leif Karlstrom on fiddle, Jordan Klein on banjo, Zach Sharpe on bass, and Adam Roszkiewicz on mandolin—as a band, they’re as good as it gets. Whether on vocal numbers or on the two instrumentals—”Daysleeper” and “Old Country,” both composed by  Roszkiewicz—they’re creating something together instead of merely waiting their turn to rip off a break.

Reaching into the folk songbook, Front Country turns an old Bob Dylan demo (“Long Ago, Far Away”) into an old-school bluegrasser with Groopman on lead vocal, revives Kate Wolf’s “Like a River,” and offers the best version of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails” since the famous JD Crowe & the New South cover.

There are many ways to play good bluegrass, but Front Country’s way—to create a sound as distinctive and exciting as this working well outside the traditional in terms of vocals, lyrics, and instrumental licks and without resorting to indulgent wankery like some more famous acts with bluegrass roots—is perhaps the most difficult and, certainly in this case, most deeply satisfying.

“Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn” by Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

One of the great joys in life is seeing two people from different spheres of your life connect. I was happy and surprised when I heard that Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married. I only knew them from their music, but I had them  categorized in very different bins in my mental record collection—he known for radically extending the banjo’s possibilities with complex compositions and fast, intricate picking, and she for simple, beautiful playing and signing that draws deeply from the past of American and various world roots music traditions.

After a year of touring and the birth of their first child, they created this “front porch banjo and vocal album” at home—just the two of them with a variety of banjos playing supporting roles to Fleck’s Gibson Mastertone Style 75 and Washburn’s Ome Jubilee.

Washburn’s shimmering voice refreshes traditional tunes like the slow and driving “Railroad,” the dolorous “Pretty Polly,” the keening existential plea of “And Am I Born to Die,” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?,” which is nearly as gorgeous as Washington Phillips’ famous version.

Mixing old and new, Washburn combines a verse from Texas acoustic bluesman Little Hat Jones with new verses of her own on “Bye Bye Blues,” whose New Orleans feel is underscored by a bass line plucked out on a Gold Tone cello banjo.

Fleck’s dextrous picking works especially well as a complement to Washburn’s vocals, and her picking blends seamlessly with his, whether on vocal tracks or on instrumental duets like their low and rolling original “Banjo Banjo,” the Flecktones’ classic “New South Africa,” and “For Children: No. 3 Quasi Adagio, No. 10 Allegro Molto—Children’s Dance,” a pastoral Hungarian folk melody from Fleck’s namesake Béla Bartók.

The pair also offer new songs that work well alongside their innovate arrangements of traditional material: Fleck’s sharp tale of impending disaster “What’cha Gonna Do,” Washburn’s gentle, cascading “Ride to You,” the swampy “Little Birdie” (not the traditional song, but a new co-write), and “Shotgun Blues,” a menacing, role-reversing (almost) murder ballad where Washburn might as well be channeling Amy Elliott-Dunne, the protagonist of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Let’s all hope that their personal and musical collaboration continues for a lifetime with the same brilliance as this first record.

“Holiday!” by the Claire Lynch Band

The Claire Lynch Band
Holiday!
Thrill Hill Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to avoid holiday music, but Claire Lynch has finally got me in the Christmas spirit with this gorgeous album.

Writers, including myself, have emptied out the thesaurus trying to describe Lynch’s singing, which brings both a fresh sound and a sweet nostalgia to songs—“Home for the Holidays,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “White Christmas,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” and “All Through the Night”—that we’ve all heard so many times.

It helps to have a band that includes the incomparable Mark Schatz on bass, along with Bryan McDowell (fiddle, mandolin, guitar) and Matthew Wingate (mandolin and guitar, including some fine archtop playing). The trio, appropriately, jazz up “We Three Kings,” the album’s lone instrumental cut, and their take on “Jingle Bells”—featuring Schatz on clawhammer banjo—is the first version of that chestnut I’ve enjoyed hearing in years.

New or less-familiar (to me, at least) songs include the cool and crisp Lynch/McDowell vocal duet “Snow Day” and the warm Nativity ballad “Heaven’s Light” (with Jim Hurst guesting on guitar).

Schatz also sings lead on “In the Window,” a Hanukkah song whose splendid performance and intricate arrangement underscore the talent of Lynch, her band, and Todd Phillips, who recorded, mixed, and mastered this fine album.

“Nashville” by the Osborne Brothers

The Osborne Brothers
Nashville
Pinecastle Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Give the folks at the resurgent Pinecastle Records credit for issuing this fourth and final chapter in an ambitious Osborne Brothers career retrospective—begun in 1998—in spite of many obstacles, most notably Sonny’s retirement.

The three previous installments—Hyden (1998), Dayton to Knoxville (2000), and Detroit to Wheeling (2003)— were mostly new recordings of Osborne classic tracks associated with different segments of their career, and Nashville seems to have been planned as a similar revival, this time of their most commercially successful period as veteran Grand Ole Opry stars who grabbed lots of country airplay in the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s after adding steel guitar, drums, and electric bass to Sonny’s unique banjo picking and Bobby’s soaring lead singing.

Instead, Nashville brings to light seven lost recordings from a album abandoned by the group when they abruptly, and unhappily, left MCA Records, which had appropriated their previous label, Decca. Cut in Bradley’s Barn in 1973 (which I think is correct, though in one place, the liner says 1975) with studio pros including Vassar Clements (fiddle), Pig Robbins (piano), and Hall Rugg (steel and Dobro), it’s pretty stout stuff.

The Bobby composition “Gonna Be Raining When I Die” surely would have been a radio hit that year, and Phil Rosenthal’s “Muddy Waters,” cut by the Seldom Scene the same year, shows just how sophisticated the brothers from Hyden, Ky. could be.

With two killer Louvin tracks (“My Baby’s Gone” and “When I Stop Dreaming”) and three from the pen of Jake Landers (“The Oak Tree,” “Going Back to the Mountains,” and “The Hard Times”), they were clearly in the home stretch of a project that would have stood with their best.

Quite satisfying that we finally have them here—along with an eighth track, Roger Miller’s “Half a Mind” from a strictly acoustic 1995 session that features Terry Eldredge joining the vocal trio and Gene Wooten’s Dobro trading licks with Sonny’s crisp and woody guitjo.