Graded on a Curve:
Lead Belly,
Easy Rider: Leadbelly Legacy Volume Four

Of Lead Belly records, there are a ton, and the reasons why are simple. Foremost, this titan of American music possessed a deep reservoir of songs, but he was also something of a crossover artist, robust enough in style to appeal to subsequent generations of blues fanatics as diversity of subject matter and musical approach ensconced him as a godfather-cornerstone to the burgeoning mid-20th century folk movement. Smithsonian Folkways’ fresh reissue of Easy Rider: Leadbelly Legacy Volume Four is a tidy encapsulation of the man’s aptitude for social commentary, its arrival welcome in this period of severe tumult. It’s available now in the label’s signature tip-on jacket, remastered and with the original notes.

Born in January of 1888, Huddie William Ledbetter was a performing musician prior to the 1920s commercial boom for the blues, which party explains the breadth of his talent beyond the form. Like many early blues players, he’s just as aptly described as a songster (versatility allowing a player to become something of a one-man show in those days), and while an effective multi-instrumentalist, his excellence on the 12-string guitar was matched by the strength of his voice and an ability to consistently communicate the essence of his songs, many of which were handed down from oral tradition.

All of these attributes found Lead Belly fitting nicely into the early US folk scene, but it was probably his relationship to the pre-recording industry roots of folk tradition (he was an eight-year elder of Blind Lemon Jefferson) that sealed the deal. This places him historically in strong and varied company; think Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Lightnin’ Hopkins for starters, but with the crucial difference that Lead Belly wasn’t a subject of rediscovery after an earlier dalliance with commercial record makers.

He was discovered, however. Like many others of his circumstance in Jim Crow USA, it was during a stay in prison, with Lead Belly first recorded in 1933-’34 by John and Alan Lomax while serving a term in Angola. These songs weren’t commercially released until the ’60s, but once he’d been given early release in ’34, the man took the ball of interest in his music and ran for a career-securing touchdown.

In 1935, his initial commercial work was issued by the American Record Corporation with a focus on the blues, though they didn’t sell well, as by this point Lead Belly’s style of blues was somewhat out of vogue. The over three dozen sides he cut for ARC do serve as the bedrock for his rep as a blues titan, comprising the track list for Columbia’s essential self-titled 1970 LP (aka Includes Performances Never Before Released) and its CD-era companion King of the 12-String Guitar (as part of Columbia’s Roots n’ Blues series).

Shifting focus to live performances in person and later on the radio, Lead Belly next recorded for the Library of Congress, then for RCA and shortly after for the Asch label of Moses Asch, which transitioned into a copious body of work for Asch’s next venture, the Folkways imprint, though it’s important to note that Lead Belly’s recordings were reportedly not profitable for him during his lifetime.

Instead, he made his bones playing in public alongside Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee as part of the NYC folk community. While spending a few years in California he hit the studio for Capitol, but once back in New York, Folkways remained his label home, with his final recordings made for the company; while on a successful European tour the ailing Lead Belly was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died poor in NYC in 1949, less than a year before the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger) had a smash hit with one of his signature tunes, “Goodnight Irene.”

That song isn’t on Easy Rider, but that’s okay, as no single LP will effectively cover the breadth of Lead Belly’s talent, at least not one with an engaging flow. This set, first issued as a 10-inch in 1953 and here expanded to a full long-playing album does include a few of his undisputed classics, but it more productively spotlights a few intertwined aspects of his essence, most prominently his honing of folk tunes delivered with a level of toughness and enough 12-string wizardry to please blues lovers.

Side one opens in full-on folk mode with “There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names,” here presented with the spoken introduction that’s been shorn off of many of its reissue appearances (he also recorded it more than once). Essentially a simple-strummed but powerfully sung tune appropriate for a singalong, it contrasts with the deeper blues feeling of the record’s title track (aka “Cee Cee Rider”), here played in band mode with Pops Foster on bass, Brownie McGhee on guitar, and Sonny Terry on harmonica.

The folk blues atmosphere gives way to another singalong-ready number, with “Red Bird” underscoring Lead Belly’s talent as a performer of children’s songs, as he cut a set of 78s of kids-appropriate tunes, Play Parties in Song and Dance Sung by Lead Belly, in 1941. Happily, his execution avoids the innocuousness of so much children’s stuff, though it also doesn’t reside at the root of all blues gusto.

That’s more than okay however, as it highlights his ability to conjure up some locomotive-styled momentum in presaging the brief train-themed “Line ‘em,” a vocal-focused cut somewhat reminiscent of Son House in a cappella-handclap mode. But if it’s the blues you’re pining for, the guitar-sturdiness of side one’s closer “T.B. Blues” should satisfy without a hitch.

The flipside opens with the more leisurely paced “Jim Crow.” In terms of melodic richness, it’s the standout of the disc, and it works as a fine prelude in form and content to one of Lead Belly’s true classics, his protest against the noxious classism-racism cocktail (and warning to his fellow African-Americans considering a visit or move to ’40s Washington, DC) “Bourgeois Blues.”

By this point, Lead Belly’s skill as a socially conscious folksinger is in full swing, so the segue into “Army Life,” here a true singalong with a tight studio audience joining in on the verses, goes down easy. For the finale, he’s back in solo mode, slowing it down and directing his ire to one of history’s vilest men in “Hitler Blues.” It’s a strong tune, but an interesting component in particular is how Lead Belly wastes no time in calling out Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, which is directly opposite to how many in the ’40s, even ostensible lefties, were bending over backwards to not discuss Nazi Germany’s act of genocide.

It’s often said that Lead Belly designed his topical songs with savvy toward his receptive leftwing audience, and no doubt that’s true. But “Jim Crow” and “Bourgeois Blues” resonate with conviction, and for that matter so does “Hitler Blues” as the man didn’t soft-pedal a damned thing. A seamless if quick earful, Easy Rider: Leadbelly Legacy Volume Four successfully communicates the biggest reason why Lead Belly’s artistry has stood the test of time; his music came from the heart.


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