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

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

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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:

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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.

“Live at the Old Feed Store” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Live at the Old Feed Store
GSM Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers’ recent release is a live album recorded over two days in 2013 at—where else—“The Old Feed Store,” an intimate venue in southern Illinois. For those of you not familiar with the band, Chris Jones is satellite radio host of Bluegrass Junction, award winning songwriter, and a columnist at Bluegrass Today. The Night Drivers are Ned Luberecki (banjo), also a host of Bluegrass Junction, banjo instructor, and songwriter; Jon Weisberger (bass), the 2012 IBMA Songwriter of the Year, columnist, and IBMA chairman; and Mark Stoffel (mandolin), a professor at Southern Illinois University. It’s hard to think of a group that exceeds this one in terms of instrumental prowess, broad knowledge of bluegrass music and its history, and contributions to the music with their work off the stage.

We’ve all been caught in the situation of watching a live show with disappointment due to a lack passion from the band, no rapport with the audience, or basically not sounding anything like the album. As a musician who regularly plays on stage, I always strive to accomplish an entertaining show for the audience; in the studio, I attempt to create a album that represents a live snapshot of a show. For that reason, I enjoy the experience of a live album—the stage patter, the crowd participation to formulate a feeling of being in the audience, and even the mistakes. There certainly aren’t many of the latter on Live at the Old Feed Store.

Mixed in with the strong original material are a few traditional tunes like “Bound to Ride,” the gospel classic “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which brings back childhood memories, and the classic fiddle tune “Forked Deer,” all of which use their well-known melodies as a jumping-off point for nifty individual expression.

Jones’ take on the classic theme of jealousy and relationships, “Like a Hawk,” and “Then I Close My Eyes” are prime examples of his writing talent, the latter including special guest Emily Bankester on an eerie tenor vocal.

The most entertaining song on the album is “Cabin of Death” written by Nedski as his attempt to write the perfect bluegrass tune that incorporates an upbeat feel, depressing lyrics, and powerful banjo licks.

Being a history teacher and civil war enthusiast, another of my favorite songs on the album is “Battle of the Bands,” (cowritten by Weisberger), which blends fine instrumentation with words that convey the reality of the cruelest war in America’s history.

This 15-track, 48-minute disc gives me the feeling of being in the front row at a great show—I’ll definitely be there in person next time Chris Jones & the Night Drivers come to my neck of the woods.

“In Session” by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
In Session
Mountain Home Music
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

I realize it may not be a popular opinion, and it may even get me into trouble, but I’ve always wondered how good DLQ would be if the band became a more stable group, with members expected to stay together for several years to grow into a true band—rather than be a bluegrass training ground or (my least favorite bluegrass term this side of ‘progressive’) ‘school of bluegrass.’

I first had this thought about ten years back when Quicksilver included folks like Jamie Dailey, Jesse Stockman, Barry Scott, and Terry Baucom, fully realizing Baucom was an original member of the group—by the time Dailey and Scott, in particular, left the band, DLQ was getting it as good as it can be got.

Instead, Quicksilver boasts an almost constantly revolving lineup of musicians and singers, all of whom bring considerable talent to the band. But, to me, it always seems everything is temporary with the band—it is just a matter of time before someone moves on and the next guy slips into the mix. Kind of like when Greg Brady needed to fit the Johnny Bravo suit.

As much as I feel this way, I usually enjoy DLQ in concert—as long as the antics aren’t too predictable, and they sometimes are—and I appreciate their recordings, although not as much lately. Recent albums have suffered from weak material and generic and faceless lead singing, with Roads Well Traveled being a particularly telling point, in my opinion. Songs like “Dobro Joe,” “How Do You Say Goodbye to Sixty Years,”  and “One Small Miracle” just didn’t cut it, being derivative of songs Lawson had previously performed to greater impact. “Say Hello to Heaven” was a new low, contrived and nauseatingly shallow, flaws that also marred “I’m That Country” and “The King.”

Doyle Lawson still has it, of course. His most recent albums with Paul Williams and J.D. Crowe are certainly proof of that. It seems that he has just become too focused or maybe complacent, musically, on being Doyle Lawson—repeating the same old stuff with which he has found success. I’ve heard him speak about his recent music, including Roads Well Traveled, and he sure seems to like what he is doing.

I just don’t see—and most importantly, hear—the appeal.

Which is a long way of getting to Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s new album, In Session.

It’s pretty good, certainly a mile and half better than Roads Well Traveled. For me, it doesn’t rise to the level of the albums I consider to be DLQ classics: Once and For Always, The Hard Game of Love and You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper. It sounds and feels more impassioned than any Quicksilver secular release since Lonely Street.

The band is solid, of course. Within the current edition of DLQ, Josh Swift (reso, percussion, and vocals) has been around the longest—well, other than Doyle Lawson, natch.  Joe Dean (banjo and guitar) has made a few albums with DLQ, while lead vocalist and guitar player Dustin Pyrtle has been around for a couple of years. Eli Johnston (bass, guitar, vocals) and Stephen Burwell (fiddle on a single song, “Wilma Walker”) are more recent recruits. Most of the fiddling is very ably handled by Jason Barie, now with Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.

The traditional Quicksilver drive is all over this album, with Johnston propelling things from the back end. Songs like “Reasons Why” and “Roll Big River” really benefit from his pulsing bass notes. “Captain” is (I believe) a strong new song from Johnston and Cody Shuler, a bit sad but not obvious.

The instrumental “Evening Prayer Blues” is a great tune, one that has been around for a long time. Lawson’s playing on it is simply impressive while the guitar contributions add a real nice texture to the tune. A cover of the Moe Bandy song “Americana” is a tad over-wrought, but not inexcusably so. The old country song (The Browns, Jimmy C. Newman) “I’d Just Be Fool Enough” is brought into bluegrass perhaps for the first time and it is a good fit. The courting song “Wilma Walker” will likely be popular.

For this listener, this new album is a welcome return to the form and quality that I had come to expect from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. That I felt the band had gone off track for a while is now beside the point: DLQ is back and (forgive me) In Session!

 

“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.

“If I Had a Boat” by Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein

Jimmy Gaudreau & Moondi Klein
If I Had a Boat
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The word morph—meaning to change form or character—is usually used to describe the transformation of images. If you’re a fan of the hit series Grimm, you’ve seen people that appear like you or me “volga” into something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think you can also use morph to describe songs that change in character and delivery and that is an important part of today’s bluegrass and acoustic music.

Jimmie Rodgers predated country and bluegrass as those terms became defined in the 1940s and ’50s. A number of country artists from that time, such as Ernest Tubb, credit Rodgers as a major influence. One of his songs from 1928 was “Treasures Untold.” It’s classic Rodgers, 120 beats per minute, easy moving, no adornment. Gaudreau and Klein morph it into more of a swing number, picking up speed and going from 3/4 to 4/4 time. The change doesn’t hurt it, giving it a sound likely better appreciated by today’s audience.

This is not a bluegrass CD. In part it’s because there’s no banjo except for one track, no bass or fiddle. What’s a Dobro? I’ve never felt a song simply can’t be bluegrass without a banjo, but then it’s going to take some other factors to give it that bluegrass touch. Jimmy Gaudreau knows bluegrass but has often ventured into other acoustic fields. He joined the Country Gentlemen, a group loved in bluegrass but often outside the classic Monroe sound, in 1969 and has been part of the New South (JD Crowe), the Tony Rice Unit, Chesapeake and Carolina Star to name just a few bands. He is an excellent mandolin player and a fine singer. Moondi Klein also has a strong bluegrass background. Besides being a bandmate of Gaudreau’s in Chesapeake, he was once a member of the Seldom Scene. Klein’s musical choices have often been in acoustic music outside of bluegrass.

This CD has one track with a banjo (Jens Kruger), “Grassnost.” Composed by Gaudreau, it’s a good, upbeat instrumental with Gaudreau playing mandolin and Klein adding guitar and piano. The piano intro is slow, moody, and well-done. There’s also a piano (played by Moondi Klein’s father, Howard) on “Waltz For Anaïs,” another Gaudreau composition. Pretty song. “One More Night” (Gaudreau playing mandola, composed by Bob Dylan) is another number that plays well as acoustic music.

James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” is a good fit. Many will associate it with George Jones’ 1978 version. Gordon Lightfoot is an excellent composer and musician with some bluegrass credentials (“Redwood Hill”); his “Did She Mention My Name” is a nice choic here. The title song was composed by Lyle Lovett and makes good folk music. Lauren Klein, Moondi Klein’s daughter, joins them on the vocals. A bit of an unusual choice is “Don’t Crawfish On Me, Baby.” Written by “Great” Bill and Martha Jo Emerson, it features some fine instrumental work but is a bit more refined than Jones’ version.

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” features their excellent harmony singing and equally excellent instrumental work, but you have to enjoy the minimalist instrumentation of just guitar and mandolin. The two-instrument approach also works well on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”

This is an acoustic music CD by two good singers and excellent instrumentalists. Especially because of Gaudreau’s past associations with bluegrass, a casual glance at the CD may lead to a bluegrass association but it isn’t that nor does it make pretensions to be bluegrass. It’s music you can appreciate, especially if you enjoy a spare instrumental approach.

“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.

“Run for Your Life” by the Show Ponies

The Show Ponies
Run For Your Life
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Run For Your Life is the first EP from Los Angeles acoustiblue band the Show Ponies. Having recorded a pair of well-received albums, the quintet called upon the enthusiasm of their fan base to release this five song mini-album.

Somehow I missed the Show Ponies when they were first brought to my attention last year, but fortunately didn’t make the same mistake twice. ‘Explosively vibrant’ were the words that popped into my wee head when I first listened to Run For Your Life, and nothing else has yet replaced them so I’m going to stick to that jarring phrase.

Punctuated by a G-run straight outta the Jimmy Martin Book O’ Licks, “Honey, Dog, and Home” celebrates road warriors:

Pull me out to another show,
done fourteen days now in a row,
and people getting’ picky with what I wear-
girl, straighten your skirt and fix your hair!

Despite the lyrical sentiments, it quickly becomes obvious that the band—lead singers Andi Carder and Clayton Chaney, guitarist and producer Jason Harris, lively fiddler Philip Glenn, and drummer Kevin Brown—revels in the vagabond life they’ve chosen. (If in doubt, check their YouTube clips.) Current IBMA banjo player of the year Noam Pikelny hired on for this track and the playful “Stupid,” a swinging tune of significant import…well, maybe not. Still, Pikelny’s contributions are easy to appreciate and further raise the profile of this outfit, which was the likely intent.

Tough to pick the strongest songs from this bunch, but I’ll forge ahead. “Get Me While I’m Young” and “Run For Your Life” offer perspectives on life, love, and all they entail. Both feature forceful instrumentation and creative wordsmithery (“…don’t come when you want, just come when you’re told…,” from the former, for example.)

This too-brief set closes with the more pensive “Some Lonesome Tune,” an appealing song of faith and discovery.
Creating original acoustic music with strong bluegrass and old-time overtones, the Show Ponies are my new favorite band. Find a copy of Run For Your Life to hear why; I’m betting you’ll be just as chuffed.