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The Definitive Leadbelly

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Album Review

Although he has often been labeled a blues artist, Leadbelly had a much wider palette than that, and routinely sang spirituals, work songs, folk ballads, and children's pieces, and he had an amazing affinity for material that would later find its way into the pop world. Songs like "Goodnight Irene," "Midnight Special," "Gallows Pole," "Rock Island Line," "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," and "Black Betty," whether he actually wrote them or simply adapted them (which is probably the case), have all had an enduring musical impact, to say nothing of his driving 12-string guitar style, which wasn't exactly pretty but sure was effective. This three-disc set from Britain's Catfish Records is a wonderful introduction to Leadbelly's legacy. It doesn't include his later Folkways recordings, but does have a wide sampling of his ARC tracks and several live cuts from various concerts along with multiple takes of "Midnight Special" and "Rock Island Line" plus fine performances of "Grasshopper in My Pillow," "Alberta," "Fannin' Street," "Bourgeois Blues," and "Ain't Going Down to the Well No More." The liner notes are more artistic than revealing and there is virtually no information about when and where the various tracks were recorded, but the music is the thing, and there is simply no better mid-price set of Leadbelly currently on the market.


Born: 20 January 1888 in Mooringsport, LA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '10s, '20s, '30s, '40s

Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, was a unique figure in the American popular music of the 20th century. Ultimately, he was best remembered for a body of songs that he discovered, adapted, or wrote, including "Goodnight, Irene," "Rock Island Line," "The Midnight Special," and "Cotton Fields." But he was also an early example of a folksinger whose background had brought him into direct contact with the oral tradition by which folk music was handed down, a tradition that, by the early years of...
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