The Lead Belly Albums Ranked
Huddie Ledbetter had a difficult life, one that informed and begot his incredible musical career as Lead Belly. The folk and blues that Lead Belly practiced was anchored in a distinctly American tradition, brought to vibrant life by the man’s twelve-string guitar playing and powerful voice. Lead Belly was born in 1888 and played music publicly in his teens. His various jail terms that followed, stemming from carrying a gun to killing another man in a fight, ended up defining, in some ways, his musical career as well. Traditional songs that were passed around a prison populace became flagship performances for Lead Belly, and indeed, it was in prison in the early 1930s that musicologists and folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax “discovered” him. On one of their tours of the South, seeking the roots of the American musical tradition for Library of Congress recordings, the Lomaxes came to see this Ledbetter in a Louisiana prison, where they recorded his deep repertoire and appealed for his release. That granted, Lead Belly had an off-and-on again musical career on the outside. Those lower points saw him driving for John Lomax as well as entering into contentious legal battles with him over contracts, management, and money owed. The Lomaxes recorded many of Lead Belly’s songs throughout the 1930s, but in 1939, Huddie went back to jail for stabbing a man. Just before and shortly after that, the burgeoning album concept led to a new approach for the release of Lead Belly’s work, segueing into a career high that lasted, more or less, until his death in 1949 at 61.
Besides the numerous singles that he recorded in the 1930s, Lead Belly recorded and released seven albums, which of course were not yet the LPs to come but were manifold sleeves (hence album) with singles within them. However, Lead Belly and his backers’ approach meant these releases were meant to be enjoyed as a cohesive work, and so, I’ve ranked six of the seven albums he released over his lifetime and in the eight years from 1939 to 1947. I omit one because I have to. Lead Belly’s last album MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (1947), a collaboration with Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, doesn’t seem to be easily tracked down on the web, even if just a couple of tracks from it appear to be on YouTube and the like. Six albums released by the Library of Congress in the 1990s also comprise the 1934 to 1943 work Lead Belly did for the Lomaxes, which are worth listening to. But here and without further ado, I’ll deal with one of the all time great folk musicians’ original album experiences.
#6 — PLAY PARTIES IN SONG AND DANCE (1941)
Favorite track: “Ha-Ha This a Way”
It might surprise one to learn, knowing Lead Belly’s apparently violent nature and past, that a significant part of his repertoire was built on performances he would put on for children’s (and others’) parties. PLAY PARTIES IN SONG AND DANCE, the musician’s first album with future Folkways Records founder Moe Asch after his time with the Lomaxes, speaks to this part of Lead Belly’s career that stretches to long before he ever recorded his work. Because of that concept, however, the album doesn’t necessarily appeal fully to a discerning adult listener. That being said, it’s not like PLAY PARTIES is totally shallow or saccharine and without appeal. It is still Lead Belly singing and playing after all, and even with a silly song like “Ha-Ha This a Way,” it’s hard not to be caught up in his energy. PLAY PARTIES is clearly the least essential of Lead Belly’s albums, running across six tracks that don’t stand in the leagues of his best, but it’s not without enjoyment either.
#5 — NEGRO FOLK SONGS (1946)
Favorite track: “John Hardy”
The genesis of NEGRO FOLK SONGS is a bit complicated. Asch Recordings, Moe’s business before Folkways, went under in 1943. Lead Belly had recorded the songs that would appear on this album just before that, and although no one is quite sure, they probably were never released in even single form. That is, until Asch’s next company, Disc Records, would emerge and take over Asch Recordings’ properties. So then finally, the album that would be called NEGRO FOLK SONGS could be released about three years after it was recorded. It’s probably important to note here that the “album” at this time didn’t constitute many tracks of more than three minutes of length. Usually, there were six to eight tracks that went by pretty fast. But this record is different in that it carries 16, although many of those 16 are just a bit shorter or longer than a minute long. One exception is the positively epic “John Hardy” at 4 minutes 18 seconds, which features Lead Belly playing the accordion (besides his incredible twelve-string guitar virtuosity, he could also play the piano, harmonica, and more). It’s a soulful, stirring song, and indeed, the whole of the record moves from such tunes to rousing and more energetic tracks. NEGRO FOLK SONGS loses some impact by featuring just brief snippets of folk and blues goodness, but it’s undeniable that Lead Belly does Lead Belly extremely well on it.
#4 — SONGS BY LEAD BELLY (1944)
Favorite track: “Goodnight, Irene”
Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” was somewhat based on an older traditional folk song, but he recorded it first in 1933 and made it a standard in his time. Indeed, he returned to the song a few times throughout his career, most notably for his record SONGS BY LEAD BELLY, which came after the biggest gap between albums (a quibble, at just about two years since WORK SONGS OF THE U.S.A.). “Goodnight, Irene” anchors this incredible collection of great folk and blues songs, a smooth, soothing, and jangly tune. There’s something about Lead Belly and other folk musicians of his era, recorded at lower fidelity than the big pop stars, that informed a kind of punk ethos, playing raw, emotional music with a scratchy, hissy backing (at least as they mostly sound today). But those elements are partly what give these recordings their charm, and indeed, SONGS BY LEAD BELLY is incredibly charming, if not the artist’s greatest bundle of tracks.
#3 — NEGRO SINFUL SONGS (1939)
Favorite track: “Poor Howard”
I must admit, the title of NEGRO SINFUL SONGS weirds me out a bit. But the album it contains is great. Lead Belly’s first album after five years of singles-recording with the Lomaxes, NEGRO SINFUL SONGS was a production of John and Musicraft Records. The fourteen tracks on the record contain quite a few of Lead Belly’s best known songs, including “Green Corn” and “The Bourgeois Blues,” but my favorite is “Poor Howard.” The singer’s plaintive tone is just so strong and compelling, but it must be said, it comes in the middle of an album that constantly delivers that feeling. It’s not like Lead Belly varied widely in his musical style or approach throughout his career or the six albums written about here, although he could tap into different moods or instrumentation quite effectively, so part of my job here is simply to evaluate the number of standout songs from any one record. And in the case of NEGRO SINFUL SONGS, while it carries a power unmatched by many contemporary releases, it doesn’t quite match the impact Lead Belly would soon make.
#2 — WORK SONGS OF THE U.S.A. (1942)
Favorite track: “Haul Away Joe”
WORK SONGS OF THE U.S.A., in spite of its emphasis on one kind of tune, does not enter a stagnant mode or malaise. While it’s true that the six songs played by Lead Belly feature the rounded and repetitive structure that labor music employed, somehow he’s able to achieve variety. The low-key energy of “Haul Away Joe,” for example, is in direct contrast to the energy of a song like “Rock Island Line.” However he’s playing or singing, however, Lead Belly rarely sounded stronger or better than on WORK SONGS OF THE U.S.A., an album that really gets at the heart of why the musician was so good. Indeed, I’ve already cited it as the fifth best album of the entire 1940s decade (albeit with a different favorite track).
#1 — THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL AND OTHER SOUTHERN PRISON SONGS (1940)
Favorite track: “Midnight Special”
“Midnight Special,” although not written by him as it was a traditional prison tune, is probably Lead Belly’s most famous song. He recorded it multiple times, but it never sounded better than it did on the semi-eponymous album THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL AND OTHER SOUTHERN PRISON SONGS. To some extent, I feel that the record isn’t quite the best conduit with which to understand Lead Belly’s body of work. Recorded with the Golden Gate Quartet after Alan Lomax bailed the musician out of jail (for his stabbing crime in 1939), the vocal group was brought in to bring a prison “feel.” You see, Lomax wasn’t able to get the recording together within the actual jail. And ultimately, the Golden Gate Quartet is maybe a bit too polished. But instead of redirecting Lead Belly’s sound or providing an unwanted sheen, the Quartet is able to deepen the singer’s approach and indeed make him shine even more. Recorded for Victor Records, THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL was certainly Lead Belly’s greatest album-length commercial breakthrough. It plays with yearning, pain, “the blues,” labor, and the prison experience that can be found at the heart of Americana, sure, but especially at the core of how African Americans were and are treated in this country. Lead Belly’s unadorned approach still comes through on THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and actually, the richness of it is intensified with a different approach. It is not only Lead Belly’s best album, it’s also nearly the best album of the entire 1940s decade. In fact, I think THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is an essential record in any context, for its time, for America, for its genre and sound. It is, indeed, very special.