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ClassicsOnline Home » LEADBELLY: Rock Island Line (1935-1941)
LEADBELLY Rock Island Line
Original Recordings 1935-1943
One of the most famous and intriguing of the early folk singers, Leadbelly had a colourful life with enough ups and downs to fill up several Hollywood movies. His music crossed over between folk music and blues, the black storytelling tradition of the 1800s and modern country blues of the 1930s. His voice was powerful and expressive and he was an underrated and very effective guitarist.
Born Huddie Ledbetter on 20 January 1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana, he learned guitar early on and dropped out of school when he was twelve or thirteen to make his living as a musician. A popular performer in the South, Ledbetter was a pioneer folk singer and one of the first masters of the twelve-string guitar. He was always adding new songs and traditional folk songs to his rapidly growing repertoire which he performed at dances and parties. In 1915 he learned slide guitar from Blind Lemon Jefferson and was already becoming legendary.
Unfortunately Ledbetter had a violent temper and was constantly in trouble with the law. In 1917 he was arrested for murder in Texas and the following year was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Behind bars, Ledbetter became known for his singing and guitar playing and he seemed to be completely rehabilitated. In 1925 he performed for Texas governor Pat Neff who was so impressed that he soon granted him a pardon. Now known as Leadbelly, he continued working in the South for the next five years before getting into trouble again. This time he was convicted in Louisiana for attempted murder and sentenced to 30 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. It looked as if Leadbelly had blown his last chance for a decent life.
Miraculously, Leadbellys music saved his life again. In 1933 John Lomax, a researcher for the Library Of Congress, was traveling through the South looking for folk singers to record. He was told about Leadbelly, they met, and in July he recorded Leadbelly for the Library of Congress. There were further sessions the following year and Lomax helped Leadbelly to be released after only four of the thirty-year sentence.
Leadbelly recorded prolifically during the next fourteen years. After a session with the Library of Congress on 21 January 1935, two days later Leadbelly made his first commercially available recordings, including the first five selections on this wide-ranging sampler. Leadbelly instinctively knew that this was probably going to be his last chance to make it and he is in particularly powerful form throughout this date. Black Snake Moan has passionate yet eerie singing and fluent doubletime lines from his guitar. Compared to the more swing-oriented blues of Big Bill Broonzy and other popular artists in 1935, Leadbellys storytelling music seemed old fashioned at the time but was so sincere and intense as to be timeless enough to still be relevant today. On Four Day Worry Blues, rather than sing his lyrics straight, Leadbelly acts as a narrator part of the time and his introduction sets up the story on Packin Trunk Blues. Instead of following specific musical rules or sticking to a specific length of each chorus, Leadbelly made up his own rules so as to best get his musical message across. The music served the story rather than the other way around.
Honey, Im All Down And Out, rather than being a conventional blues, is completely unpredictable both in its structure and in its story. Becky Deem, She Was A Gambling Girl is based a bit on "How Long, How Long Blues" although the story is original. After an abstract guitar introduction, Pig Meat Papa becomes a blues with occasionally eccentric guitar accompaniment.
Later in 1935, Leadbelly settled in New York where he gained a small but devoted following. His lyrics dealt with a wide variety of social matters, he continued reviving ancient folk songs and he worked quite steadily. His complete output from 1939 is on this release. The ten performances contain many highlights including the two-part Frankie And Albert which is Leadbellys adaptation of "Frankie And Johnny", complete with new details and angles to the traditional story. A three-song medley that begins with Looky Looky Yonder puts the emphasis totally on Leadbellys voice since it is taken a cappella. The Bourgeois Blues has frank language (including protesting against racism in Washington D.C.) that contrasts with the traditional blues structure. In addition, several traditional folk songs are revived by Leadbelly including Poor Howard, Green Corn, The Boll Weevil, Aint Goin Down The Well No Mo, and Go Down Old Hannah (the last two taken unaccompanied) which hark back to the 1800s.
The last four songs on this reissue (from 1942-43) are among Leadbellys most famous pieces. The first three have him joined by the great harmonica player Sonny Terry who would become famous teaming up with guitarist Brownie McGhee for decades. Good Morning Blues includes some familiar stanzas that were utilized by a countless number of jazz and blues singers. How Long is a derivation of Leroy Carrs "How Long, How Long Blues," long an alternate chord structure for blues performers. Irene (best known as "Goodnight Irene") was first performed by Leadbelly nearly forty years before this 1943 recording. It became a hit for The Weavers right after his death but is now thought of as his trademark song. The same fate happened to the pseudo-gospel song Rock Island Line, which was a strong seller for Lonnie Donegan in the mid-1950s.
Leadbelly was at the height of his powers in 1943 when he was 55. But his health began to decline within a couple of years and, although he continued performing and recording into 1949, he died on 6 December 1949. He missed the folk music revival of the early 1960s but remains a household name today for anyone interested in folk, blues, and traditional African-American music. Even more than a half-century after his death, Leadbelly is a unique figure in history.
Scott Yanow, 2003
author of seven jazz books including Classic Jazz, Swing and Trumpet Kings
Many of Leadbellys recordings were made under less than optimum conditions. The ones for the American Record Company labels (Melotone, Perfect et al) were typical of their time, and oddly enough were budget priced. Those made for Musicraft and Asch were full-priced, poorly recorded, and often pressed on inferior shellac. The Musicraft sides were issued in an album titled "Negro Sinful Songs". Leadbellys recordings for Asch would appear in a variety of formats and on several labels. "Irene" was recorded as two takes, in different keys and with differing lyrics, and the two versions were issued separately; theyve been joined for this compilation.
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LEADBELLY: Rock Island Line (1935-1941)