Lead Belly’s Last Sessions
Smithsonian/Folkways 40068-71 (four CDs).
Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, born in rural Louisiana in 1885, wellknown songster by the turn of the century, convicted murderer in 1918, discovery of the folklorist John Lomax in 1933, and frustrated would-be recording star from then until his death in 1949, sat down in the New York living room of the jazz scholar Frederic Ramsey, Jr., in the fall of 1948 and spun out several evenings of song and reminiscence, accompanied only by his twelve-string guitar. The result is a unique anthology of music that seemed archaic at the time but would fuel the folk and blues revivals of the following decades. He sang unaccompanied hollers and chants and field calls; he performed his signature tune, “Irene,” twice; “Rock Island Line,” which he had also introduced; “Midnight Special” and “Easy Rider"; the stirring “Titanic,” which he had sung decades before with Blind Lemon Jefferson ("Jack Johnson wanted to get on board, the captain he says I ain’t haulin’ no coal, fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well"); a raw, pre-pop-music “House of the Rising Sun"; and dozens of other songs sad, joyous, humorous, and angry. He did them all with unrelenting enthusiasm and intensity. The three evenings amount to both an invaluable historical document and a timeless musical one and now appear on CD for the first time.