Leadbelly, the Ultimate Road Rambler

Huddie William Ledbetter "Leadbelly" - The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition
Huddie William Ledbetter “Leadbelly” – The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition
Huddie William Ledbetter “Leadbelly”

The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition (Proper Records, 2009)

It never fails that someone in the crowd points out that Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, caught the biggest break of his life when John and Alan Lomax, who had been traveling the country recording American folk music, walked into the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1933, where Mr. Ledbetter was cooling his heels on an attempted murder rap. Somehow I don’t think it was Leadbelly who got the big break, but that the entire recorded musical heritage of the U.S. and beyond caught a colossal break.

The musician and singer Leadbelly, the man who laid down a foundation for an endless line of road rambling folk troubadours, washed-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb gospel and soul singers, cowboy crooners and juke joint wailers, not to mention just about every rock-and-roll musician who has come down the pike in the last fifty years, turned out a songbook so encompassing during his lifetime that it would be almost impossible to gauge his profound influence on music today. The only proof one needs is The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition, the special sixtieth anniversary edition box set out on Proper Records.

Containing three CDs and a DVD with interviews with musicologists and some rare Leadbelly footage, The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition is a cornucopia of sheer goodness and a must have for every blues, folk, gospel and rock devotee. Russell Beecher, who compiled and annotated the collection, offers listeners 82 tracks of Leadbelly’s best and DVD Leadbelly performances of “Grasshoppers in My Pillow,” “Black Girl,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Matchbox Blues,” “Grey Goose” “Take This Hammer” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton.”

While the commentary by the musicologists was interesting, let me throw in a caution in here. There’s a section of film where Leadbelly is reenacting pleading with Alan Lomax to be “his man” that is downright cringe worthy. It isn’t that I don’t know the truth of those times for a black man – it’s simply sad to watch such an icon forced to stoop so very low.

In addition to the CDs and DVD, The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition provides a gorgeous 30-page booklet with track listings, a biography and a collection of priceless photographs of Leadbelly and of life around Shreveport (Louisiana), Dallas (Texas) and Angola’s (Louisiana)prison life. Kudos are certainly in order for designer Karin Ussher, as well as Paul Swinton and Tim Willis who are the masters of mastering.

Disc one, Good Morning Blues of The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition is chocked full of such goodies as Leadbelly’s versions of “If It Wasn’t for Dicky,” “Laura,” “Bring A Little Water, Sylvie,” “Black Girl,” “New York City” and the classic “Goodnight Irene.” This CD also offers a look into the storyteller side of Leadbelly on tracks like “Frankie & Albert (Part 1 and 2) or the powerful “Scottsboro Boys,” about the three black youths accused of assaulting a couple of white women. This disc also contains a hauntingly soulful version of “Easy Rider.”

Midnight Special, the second disc, gets even better with “Rock Island Line,” blues numbers “Roberta,” “Sweet Mary” and “Leaving Blues.” Tracks like “House of the Rising Sun,” full of down-and-out juke joint sorrow, and “C.C. Rider” and the stunning version of “Midnight Special” might be familiar to most music fans, but these tracks possess a shine all their own and put to shame some of the more popular versions. My personal favorite has to be the poignantly soulful “Grey Goose.”

Disc three, Leaving Blues, has got the goods with gospel trio “Meeting at the Building/Talking Preaching/We Shall Walk Through the Valley,” “Salty Dog,” Leadbelly’s tribute to the Titanic disaster “Titanic (Fare Thee Well)” the mournful “Ain’t Going Down to the Well No More” and blues numbers “Matchbox Blues” and “Last Leaving Blues.” This disc also contains wonderful versions of “Take this Hammer” and “Grasshoppers in My Pillow.”

Now normally when something comes out with the tag ‘definitive’ on it I get a little edgy, so I couldn’t say if this box set is the definitive last word on Mr. Ledbetter and his legacy, but I’d say this one comes damn close. There are a couple of things I wish had been included on this compilation. I wish the tracks on the CDs and some of the photographs in the booklet would have included dates and I would have liked a brief commentary by Mr. Beecher as why he sequenced the music as he did, but that’s just me.

The Definitive Leadbelly: 60th Anniversary Edition is a brilliant compilation, but then again we wouldn’t expect any less from the fine folks at Proper Records. In the end, I don’t think Leadbelly caught the lucky break when the Lomaxes strolled onto the yard at Angola– I think we did. And with The Definitive Leadbelly box set, we got lucky twice.

Note: This box set is only distributed in Europe. U.S. fans should know that this box set is only available for purchase as an import. Canadian fans should check out Amazon. All of our other friends around the globe should check Amazon, if available, or order as an import. Of course, if you have a friend traveling to Europe this summer, you could tell them you’re willing to forego the plastic miniature of the Eiffel Tower, the ridiculously floppy Basque beret and the adult-sized lederhosen if they’ll pick you up a copy of this box set.

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