Lead Belly, “Been So Long [Bellevue Hospital Blues]” (2015): One Track Mind

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He begins with a frank admission — “I make up songs as I go along” — before launching into that rarest of things, at this late date: A new tune from Lead Belly. In this case, a cracked but still resilient old acetate brings us back to a scary moment transformed by the legendary bluesman’s scampish, somehow still-intact sense of humor.

Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, the Louisiana-born self-styled King of the 12 String, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1949, just as he began to achieve some measure of wider fame. By December of that same year, Ledbetter was dead — having spent his final days in a sick bed. But he doesn’t lament that certain fate on “Been So Long [Bellevue Hospital Blues],” even while admitting that he had already lost the ability to walk.

Instead, Lead Belly flirts with the first female doctor he’d ever seen, before turning his focus to a friendly nurse. You start out thinking he’s going to talk about his heartbreaking fate; he ends up joking about an impulse that starts some place lower.

Best remembered for songs such as “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene,” Ledbetter’s legacy has been bolstered more recently through the release of long-lost music recorded under the aegis of Moses Asch for Folkways between 1941-47. The bulk of those recordings was issued in the late-1990s, under the titles Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Bourgeois Blues and Shout On.

Turns out, there’s more where that came from. Those earlier discs have been bolstered by 16 remarkable, previously unheard moments like “Been So Long [Bellevue Hospital Blues]” for the forthcoming Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, due on February 24, 2015. This forthcoming new five-disc set includes 108 tracks in all, providing fresh insights into a figure who joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nearly four decades after his death.

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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