Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter – Bourgeois Blues (1997)

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Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was a man of sweeping appetites, for songs, for drink and for life. This made his music rugged and true, but also got him into his share of big trouble.

Very big.

Ledbetter, born on Jan. 29, 1885 on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, La., would spend several stints in jail, once reportedly lived as a recluse from the law under an assumed name, and was known to resolve every-day conflict with violence right up until his early passing on Dec. 6, 1949.

Thing is, he tore into musical pursuits with the same furious abandon, picking through all that came before and carrying it across the country. Lead Belly’s original compositions, and his arrangements of traditional songs, would become one of the structural supports upon which popular American music was built.

That’s because Ledbetter, despite his outsized persona, had a careful ear: He internalized the resigned country blues laments of a bound but proud people; the dangerous late-night rumblings of Fannin Street flophouses and juke joints in Shreveport, La.’s legendary Bottoms section of town; the bubbling homemade music made after the work was done with cowbells, washboards, mouth organs and jugs; and the sweetly hopeful hymns heard at week’s end echoing down the steps of a shotgun holy-rolling Sunday school class.

In this way, Lead Belly would provide a living soundtrack for the Deep South at mid-century, both the local barn dance and the church raffle, the backstreet barbecue and the hometown reunion.

Still, Ledbetter had wider aspirations. His ideas, like his life, were big. Very big.

It took some time, but Lead Belly eventually found his way out of the local rattle-board barrooms and dimly lit basement saloons out to the American West and over to New York City. Lead Belly was as much a traveler as he was a singer, and the two worked hand in hand. He collected tales, then wove them back into his work — perhaps never more completely experienced than on these remastered and lovingly annotated Smithsonian sides.

Compiled from a series of recordings made in New York by Moses Asch in the 1940s, the music collected on “Bourgeois Blues” was initially issued by Folkways as “Easy Rider: Lead Belly’s Legacy, Vol. 4” and “Midnight Special.” Ledbetter had finally been discovered during a stay at Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary by collector John Lomax on one of his legendary recording trips for the Library of Congress; Lomax helped Lead Belly up to the Big Apple.

There, Ledbetter instantly connected with the local folk-music protest crowd, and his apartment became an after-hours hang out for fellow singer-songwriters and musicians like Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Several of these house guests appear on the loose-limbed recording sessions put together by Asch, providing a backstory on “Bourgeois Blues.”

Lead Belly wasn’t, strictly speaking, a political singer — though he would delve into such subjects on tracks like “Jim Crow,” “Abraham Lincoln” and “Hitler Song,” each included on “Bourgeois Blues.”

Again, everything went into the pot.

The compilation’s illuminating liner notes include a long letter retelling Ledbetter’s life story by Guthrie, written in 1946, and a number of quotes from Lead Belly himself — who would often introduce his songs, even in the studio, with a well-rehearsed anecdote.

Ledbetter — notably on well-known cuts like “Fannin Street,” “Skip To My Lou” and the title track — often appears alone throughout the expansive 28-song set. Just as fascinating are guest turns by his new buddies on traditional cuts like “John Henry” (with Terry), “Alabama Bound” (with Guthrie) and “Easy Rider” (a variation on “See See Rider,” done with McGhee).

There are interesting archival takes on a number of Ledbetter-arranged tunes that eventually found their way into the popular and rock music canons, as well — from “Midnight Special” (Creedence Clearwater Revival almost perfectly echoed Lead Belly’s version) to Big Bill Broonzy’s “Diggin’ My Potatoes” to “Gallis Pole,” a ballad embedded below that was later recorded as “Gallow’s Pole” by Led Zeppelin.

“John Henry” and “Midnight Special,” both previously unreleased recordings from the Folkways archives, are among the other true finds from “Bourgeois Blues.”

There’s more. Much more. That this is only part two in what became a Ledbetter legacy series by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies should come as no surprise.

Huddie Ledbetter always did it up big. Very big.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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