One need look no further than the likes of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nirvana, Pete Seeger, Lonnie Donegan, and Ram Jam to be reminded of the influence of blues/folk multi-instrumentalist and singer Huddie Ledbetter – better known to most as Lead Belly – on classic rock, pop, and alternative music over the decades, having either served as the source of or helped popularize such songs as “Goodnight Irene”, “Gallows Pole”, “The Midnight Special”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, and “Black Betty”, among others. There are, of course, already plenty of best-of collections dedicated to the Louisiana-born songster, but for those looking to take a bit of a deeper dive into Lead Belly’s music, you won’t find anything quite as comprehensive or entertaining as this offering from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a career-spanning five-disc, 108-track set entitled Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.
A campanion to Smithsonian’s earlier Grammy Award-winning Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, the set contains 16 previously unreleased recordings, including four original songs and two radio programs recorded for WNYC that haven’t been heard since their original airing nearly seven and a half decades ago, several of the tunes from which are available only through the programs. In addition to the more popular songs noted above, you’ll also hear such gems as the mid-tempo “Bourgeois Blues”, the lively “Fannin Street (Mister Tom Hughes Town)” that’s as good a reminder of Ledbetter’s skill on the 12-string guitar as any; chugging, harmonica-laced tunes like “John Henry” and “Lead Belly’s favorite blues” according to one of the radio programs: “Good Morning Blues”, both featuring Sonny Terry on harmonica; the previously unreleased “I’m So Glad, I Done Got Over”; upbeat rags such as “It’s Tight Like That” and “Diggin’ My Potatoes”; an early version of “House of the Rising Sun”; and a terrific “Dekalb Blues” that ranks as one of the set’s best tracks despite its placement just a few songs shy of disc five’s close.
And that’s really just the tip of the musical iceberg, with an impressive array of other original and traditional folk (“Pick a Bale of Cotton”, “Cotton Fields”, “Bring Me a Little Water, Silvy”); country dance/”sukey jump” (“Yellow Gal”, “Chicken Crowing for Midnight”); spiritual (“We Shall Be Free”, “There’s a Man Going Around Taking Names”, “They Hung Him on the Cross”); work/prison & field hollers (“Grey Goose”, “Boll Weevil”, “Rock Island Line”, “On a Monday”, and a “Ham and Eggs” that isn’t about eating but rather a tune men on the chain gang sang while hammering away on the small rock piles); children’s play (“Ha-Ha This A Way”, “Sally Walker”); protest/political (“Jim Crow,” “Scottsboro Boys”, “Governor Pat Neff”); topical (“Blind Lemon”, “The Titanic”, “T.B. Blues”, “Hitler Song”, “The Hindenburg Disaster”, “Queen Mary”, “National Defense Blues”); Irish (“If It Wasn’t for Dicky”); and even a sing-a-long song or two (with Ledbetter accompanying, for example, a Bessie Smith recording of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”), a surprising variety even for a man who estimated that he could sing “500 songs and never go back to the first one”.
Of course, much of the set focuses on the blues, ranging from the tender strains of such tracks as “Outskirts of Town”, a variation on “See See Rider” in “Easy Rider”, takes on the Leroy Carr classics “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)” and “How Long, How Long” (the latter featuring some nice falsetto refrains from Lead Belly in addition to the terrific rhythm of his guitar), a slow-tempoed “Alberta”, a “Sail On, Little Girl” derived from various other blues songs from Tommy McClennan (“You Can’t Mistreat Me”), Bumble Bee Slim (“Sail On, Little Girl”), and Blind Boy Fuller (“Pistol Slapper Blues”), and what a WNYC announcer described as “one of the wailingest, lonesomest blues you’ve ever heard” in “Leaving Blues”, to mid-tempo numbers like “Sweet Jenny Lee”, “Packin’ Trunk Blues”, “Baby, Don’t You Love Me No More”, “Jail-house Blues”, and Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues”, to lively pieces like “Blues in My Kitchen, Blues in My Dining Room”, “4, 5, & 9”, the bouncy “Keep Your Hands Off Her” (Big Bill Broonzy), a smooth, jazzy “Silver City Bound” about Ledbetter’s travels with Blind Lemon Jefferson, “When a Man’s a Long Way from Home”, “One Dime Blues”, and the “high jive” of “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?”.
Often, Lead Belly can be heard discussing the meaning or origin of the song before he begins to sing, as on “Noted Rider” – which we learn refers to a “drunk woman been drinkin’ all night long and ain’t had no sleep. She been disturbin’ peace ’round in the neighborhood” – and the breezy, smooth-vocaled “Relax Your Mind” warning against distracted driving.
While most of the songs feature Ledbetter by himself on vocals and guitar, the set occasionally finds Lead Belly trading in his signature Stella guitar for an accordion (the first instrument he learned) – as is the case, for example, on “Sukey Jump”, “John Hardy”, and “Laura” – or being joined by such guests as Sonny Terry on harmonica and Brownie McGhee on guitar (including for “John Henry”, a rollicking “Diggin’ My Potatoes” on which McGhee also joins on vocals, “4, 5, & 9”, “Easy Rider”, and “National Defense Blues”, with Terry alone also accompanying Ledbetter on “How Long, How Long”, “On a Monday”, “Outskirts of Town”, and the opening “Irene” ), Woody Guthrie (vocals and mandolin on “Alabama Bound” and “Fiddler’s Dram” along with vocals on “We Shall Be Free”, where they’re also joined by Terry on harmonica), and Anne Graham (“Bring Me a Little Water, Silvy”, “What’s You Gonna’ Do When the World’s on Fire”, and “Rock Me (Hide Me in Thy Bosom)”). Lead Belly even plays piano on one tune (the barrelhouse-style “Big Fat Woman”), one of two songs – along with the catchy rhythm and nonsense “bang-a-lang, bang-a-lang, ba-da-da-dee-do-day” lyrics of “Jean Harlow” – to include some impressive scat singing from the songster.
As one might expect with such an extensive collection from this period, the sound quality varies greatly across the set, with some tracks being rather noisy while others are surprisingly clear. The discs come as part of a 140-page coffee table-sized hardbound book that also includes some nice essays, rare photos, and detailed track notes.
It’s not exactly clear when or how Ledbetter came to be known by the nickname of Lead Belly: some speculate it might have been in his youth when a friend or family member altered the sound of his surname by substituting the “t”s with “l”s, others say he earned it years later either on his way to or in prison. But regardless, his is a name that’s destined to live on for a long time, thanks to artists such as those mentioned at the start of this post and sets like this from Smithsonian Folkways.
We’re really no more certain of how UK contemporary blues band TBelly came up with their name than we are of Lead Belly’s, but we have to admit that we like what we’ve heard from them so far in their debut album Dead Men Don’t Pray (Cabin Music/ECR Music Group). While some blues fans might be tempted to dismiss the band upon learning that three of its five members formerly played in Les McKeown’s Scottish bubblegum pop group The Bay City Rollers (“Saturday Night”, “Be My Baby”, “I Only Want to Be With You”, “Bye Bye Baby”), we can assure you that the band’s sound is much deeper and more contemporary than you might at first imagine, with songs like “Mr TBelly Blues” and “I Want to Be With You” venturing well into heavy blues territory. Indeed, these guys are a whole lot closer to the likes of Moreland & Arbuckle, Johnny Sansone, or the Stephen Stills/Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Barry Goldberg supergroup The Rides – although perhaps slightly more polished and diverse even than any of these – than they are the band some of its members formerly called home.
Led by Russell Keefe on vocals and keyboards, along with fellow former Rollers Ross Lardner on lead guitar and Kevin Magill on drums, TBelly also includes bass player Riad Abji and backing singer Debs Bonomini, joined by guest harmonica player Al Richardson on several of the 11 original songs.
With deep, gritty – often croaking – vocals that range from the likes of Tom Waits to Joe Cocker and Eric Burdon to Louis Armstrong, Keefe has every bit the voice to match his strong playing on keyboards, displaying an impressive versatility in delivering tracks like the rocking numbers noted above to the jazzy, horn-accented “Night at the Ritz” and such soulful ballads as the sensitive acoustic closer “Broken” and soft, bluesy “I’ll Get You Home”.
Along the way, you’ll also hear the catchy, driving “Tie It on My Face”, with its “Wild, Wild West” (The Escape Club)-like rhythm and some ripping guitar from Lardner; the creeping, New Orleans-flavored “Lie in the Desert”, and a pleading, powerful “Best Out of You” that adds some subtle yet effective strings – particularly when they’re leading into another fine solo from Lardner. “Respectable Man” sounds like something Eric Burdon could easily have recorded, with hard-rocking grooves and some especially gritty harmonica from Richardson, who also contributes on the swaggering title track, while Bonomini’s background vocals go a long way in helping to balance Lardner’s stinging guitar and Keefe’s scratchy vocals on the simmering “Where’s the Doctor”.
Dead Men Don’t Pray makes for a solid debut from a surprisingly tight and well-rounded band, with Keefe’s lyrics representing yet another area of excellence, including such lines as “this is the way to combat social disease/ the lack of contact comes to me with such ease/ I miss the times you really pushed me around/ I want to lie in the desert with you”; “I have an automobile, it has an expensive feel/ I eat in all the right places, but I don’t get fulfilled/ but all I want from you is a night at the Ritz”; “well you made a fool of me, and you did it very well/ you took my heart and you crushed it like a very, very small eggshell/ your mind is a sewer and it runs very deep/ well you cut me up, and dumped me in a trunk, and you threw away the key” (“Where’s the Doctor”); and “I’ve been by the wayside/ I’ve been in despair/ I need a drink in the morning/ just to get me through the day/ I once was a proud man/ and I think I still am/ but the streets have a habit/ and the habit won’t go away” (“Broken”).
Once you’ve heard TBelly, chances are they too will be a habit that won’t go away; fortunately those in the U.S. will have the chance to hear more of them when the band tours the states starting in July, with appearances scheduled for New York City, D.C./Maryland/Virginia, Philadelphia, Chicago, Louisville, and hopefully more. If their live show is anything like that of this stellar debut, TBelly just may be the “must-see” blues act of the year.