Release Date: Feb 24, 2015
Record label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
The king of the 12-string guitar, Huddie William Ledbetter was, by most accounts, a difficult and volatile man. He was in and out of prison throughout his life for everything from carrying a concealed pistol to attempted murder to straight-up homicide. The stories about how he earned his nom de guerre vary from the benign (a southern-accented pronunciation of Ledbetter) to the menacing (it was said that he got the name after surviving a gunshot wound to the stomach) to the playful (I was always taught that it was because he could drink more moonshine than most everyone else).
He was born on a Louisiana plantation, spent nearly 20 years in prison, and was one of the most crucial figures in the history of popular music. Huddie Ledbetter, AKA Lead Belly, died in 1949 but his music influenced folk, skiffle and rock. Now comes the definitive boxed set of his work, with 5 CDs and 108 songs, 16 of them previously unreleased. It’s remarkable for its power, freshness and range.
Born in 1888, Huddie Ledbetter was the son of a sharecropper; he was born on a Louisiana plantation and learned to play guitar after long days working on his father's farm. After he struck out on his own at the age of 16, Ledbetter's life was full of adventures, both good and bad and including a murder conviction, but while in prison he picked up the nickname Lead Belly, and after writing a handful of great songs (and learning a hundred more) that he made his own with his passionate vocal style that melded blues and folk styles and his distinctive 12-string guitar work, he was freed and became one of the most influential folk artists in American music. Lead Belly recorded literally hundreds of songs over the course of his career (including a number of archival sessions recorded for the Library of Congress), and his music would influence a striking array of artists, from Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Odetta to Van Morrison, John Fogerty, and Kurt Cobain.
Prestige box sets of pre-rock music that out-price the casual fan or curious newcomer tend to emphasize an artist’s importance and influence, carefully delineating his or her legacy across subsequent generations of followers. You listen because it’s good for you, is the implication, which is certainly worthwhile as far as that goes. But rarely is this type of retrospective quite as much fun as Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.
It seems risible to suggest that someone could be one of the absolute all-timers of American musical history, yet also an artist who has fallen through the gaps of that collective sound bank of listening choices that lifts some performers up and casts others downward. But so it goes with Huddie William Ledbetter, better known even to people who have never heard his music as Lead Belly, a John Henry-type figure whose life reads like something out of a William Randolph Hearst newspaper sensation story. Born on a Louisiana plantation in early 1899, Ledbetter headed to Texas, where he played his steel guitar in whorehouses before killing a relative in a contretemps over a woman, which led to the chain gang.