JSP's four-CD Leadbelly box is an appropriately massive monument to a man whose power and intensity sometimes threatened to overwhelm the recording technology of his day. Ninety-six sides skim the surface of his prolific output during the last 15 years of Huddie Ledbetter's life, beginning with a selection from the Lomax
field recordings cut during the summer of 1934 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, and ending with an excerpt from a live concert at the University of Texas in Austin six months before his death in 1949. Forty-three examples from the Library of Congress sessions skim the surface of his sizable contribution to that archive, and are followed by a judicious selection of records he cut for seven commercial labels during a period when his brusque delivery was generally considered too brash and bracing for the average American listener. For a potent distillation of the man's approach to life and music, go directly to the hypnotically paced "Leaving on the Morning Train Blues" (disc 1 track 19), a nearly-ten-minute narrative that develops into Ledbetter's definitive statement on the blues as a possessing entity.
Virtually every facet of Leadbelly's repertoire is solidly represented here. He was an accomplished storyteller who specialized in folk ballads and ditties, as well as topical pieces inspired by current events and social protest songs that helped to fuel the emerging modern civil rights movement. There are love songs and work songs, many of them tracing back to slavery, plantations, prisons, and chain gangs. Leadbelly's Bluebird, Asch, and Capitol recordings include collaborations with the harmonizing Golden Gate Quartet
, guitarist Josh White
, and blues harpist Sonny Terry. While in Hollywood in 1944, he recorded for Capitol with Western swing sideman Paul Mason Howard
, fresh from his tenure with Tennessee Ernie Ford
and heard here on autoharp. A 1946 session for the east coast Disc label has him backed by Terry, Brownie McGhee
, New Orleans bassist Pops Foster
, and a nearly inaudible Willie "The Lion" Smith
. Leadbelly's own multi-instrumentalism is documented by his concertina ("John Hardy" and "Corn Bread Rough"), barrelhouse piano ("Eagle Rock Rag") and tap dancing ("Green Corn"). From the very opening of "Western Cowboy," Leadbelly's voice has an elemental, penetrating quality that wells up throughout the entire collection. Note that "In New Orleans" is better known as "House of the Rising Sun," and "Gallis Pole" is the taproot of the popular Led Zeppelin
version and a later visitation by Alvin Youngblood Hart
. For even greater immersion in Leadbelly's music, try Document's multi-volume survey which digs deeper into the Library of Congress strata. There you will find (on Vol. 4, DOCD 5594) the original 1935 two-part realization of "Whoa Back Buck (Whoa Goddamn)," the exciting prologue to the version he recorded with the Golden Gate Quartet in June 1940. In this way, JSP's Leadbelly box becomes a portal through which the rest of his legacy is clearly discernable.