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Leadbelly: Rock Island Line (1935-1941)

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Album Review

This compilation assembles digital transfers from 78 rpm records of some of the earliest discs to be issued by Leadbelly. The first six tracks reproduce the three singles released from the singer's 1935 sessions with the American Record Company (ARC) on the Melotone and Perfect labels in 1935 and 1936. (Its catalog is now controlled by Sony, but with copyright law outside the U.S. allowing recordings into the public domain after 50 years, anyone who wants to can press up an album such as this without paying for licensing.) Leadbelly was encouraged to lean toward a bluesier approach on the ARC sessions. He did not make commercial recordings again for four years, when he cut nine songs for Musicraft Records for an album called Negro Sinful Tunes in 1939. Those songs make up tracks 7-15 here, and they include such well-known Leadbelly numbers as "The Bourgeois Blues" and "The Boll Weevil." The final four tracks date from the early '40s and are drawn from the recordings Leadbelly made for Moses Asch's Asch label. (Asch later founded Folkways.) These include "Irene" (aka "Goodnight Irene"), Leadbelly's most famous song, which is actually presented in two takes combined into one, and "Rock Island Line." Thus, the collection includes some of the more memorable songs in Leadbelly's repertoire in recordings that were made available in his lifetime. Due to the secondary sources used, the sound quality is only fair, with plenty of surface noise audible, particularly on the Musicraft and Asch tracks. But this is a respectable effort, a cut above the many low-quality reissues taking advantage of the copyright limit, with good annotations and biographical liner notes by All Music Guide contributor Scott Yanow.


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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