Published Feb 20, 2015The king of the 12-string guitar, Huddie William Ledbetter was, by most accounts, a difficult and volatile man. He was in and out of prison throughout his life for everything from carrying a concealed pistol to attempted murder to straight-up homicide. The stories about how he earned his nom de guerre vary from the benign (a southern-accented pronunciation of Ledbetter) to the menacing (it was said that he got the name after surviving a gunshot wound to the stomach) to the playful (I was always taught that it was because he could drink more moonshine than most everyone else). He probably picked up a lot of the stories he'd spend the rest of his life singing while labouring on a chain gang in the sweltering heat of Jim Crow's south.
He was also, as this exhaustive five-disc collection underlines, among the very best singers and songwriters America has ever known. A legend almost immediately upon his death in 1949, Lead Belly served for the folk revivalists of the 1950s and 1960s as inspiration, touchstone and apparent conduit to the "authentic" black American experience that they so often fetishized. As a result, many in subsequent generations of music fans will have come to know these songs as "folk" standards, or as hits by white blues-rockers like CCR and Led Zeppelin.
Now, another 50 years down the line, it is a truly transformative experience to listen to these old, mysterious songs with fresh ears. You can hear antecedents of everyone from Dylan to Mumford, sure, but what is all the more exciting, as these 100+ songs pile up, is the sensation of access to a voice at once ancient and full of life. This vast, definitive collection — the first ever career-spanning Lead Belly set from Smithsonian/Folkways, by the way — is as welcome as can be. (Smithsonian Folkways)