January 22, 2011

BBC Recordings

Lead Belly
Bridging Lead Belly: this is a March 2000 article about Rounder CD 1151 by British music reviewer Frank Weston.

Boll Weevil, I'm Goin' Mother, Go Down, Ol' Hannah, Prison Holler, (Baby) Take a Whiff on Me, Irene, Jail-House Blues, Old Reilly, Ox Driver's Song (1), Ox Driver's Song (2), Julie Ann Johnson, Governor O.K. Allen, Frankie and Albert, St. Louis Blues, We're in the Same Boat Brother, Salt Lake City, Irene.

On receiving this disc for review my first thought was: What is there left to say about Leadbelly?  Likewise, what is there left to hear by Leadbelly?  Well, as has happened many times over my years of listening to various forms of folk, blues and jazz I have once again been surprised to come across recorded performances of which I and many others I might add were completely ignorant.  I was aware for instance that Woody Guthrie had one day in 1945 shortly after having been torpedoed during one of his wartime stints with the U.S Merchant Marine wandered into Broadcasting House, London, and appeared on BBC Children's Hour.  I may have even heard the programme as I was a regular listener at the time, 5.00 p.m. every schoolday afternoon.  Several years ago I was amazed to find that the BBC had had the foresight to keep a recording of the programme and thanks to the efforts of DJ Andy Kershaw it was broadcast.  Woody playing his Okie character to the hilt in conversation with the plumby voiced schoolmarm type presenter was a real treat to hear.
What has all this got to do with Leadbelly you are probably thinking?  Well the connection between Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie on this occasion is not Folkways Records or Alan Lomax or even Skiffle.  No, this time the connection is good old auntie BBC.  On October 10th 1938 in New York City, Felix Greene of the BBC had the foresight to record Leadbelly and twelve tracks from that session which I can only assume was the total recorded, are here more than sixty years later available on a Rounder recording.  Even the excellent biography on Leadbelly by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell doesn't have this session listed and we do not know if they were ever broadcast at the time.  These twelve tracks are well recorded and reproduced and make excellent listening, but if you already own a reasonable amount of Leadbelly's prodigious output then it is unlikely that you won't already have these titles from other sessions.  However if you are like me then it is always interesting to hear a previously unheard recording by someone whose music you really enjoy.
Always interesting yes, but not always a comfortable or easy experience - as is the case with the remaining five tracks on this disc.  As with the previous twelve tracks these have never been previously released and it is not difficult to understand why.  This session took place in 1946 in Salt Lake City, Utah and the recording was made at a private party on a wire recorder.  Wire recorders pre-dated tape and I believe were meant for use by the military and do not give brilliant results when recording music - especially when trying to capture such a dynamic performer as this under far from ideal conditions.  Personally I don't feel that this session really merits issue on a commercial disc.  However, I know that there are many completists who like to own everything or at least hear everything ever recorded by a particular artist and likewise try to find new meanings or interpretations not shown in previous performances.  The compiler of this disc, (the late Sean Killeen of Ithaca, NY,) obviously is one of these, running the Lead Belly Society (they insist on two words for the name) and issuing a quarterly Lead Belly Letter for several years in the 1990’s.
Nothing wrong with that, but I do feel that some of his notes add up to not much more than padding and he sometimes contradicts himself.  For example when writing about track two we are told that "This is a very basic blues song with standard guitar chords, but (Leadbelly) innovatively uses yodeling to set off each point he makes".  We are also told that the yodeling is "evidence of Leadbelly's innovative skills of singing old songs in new forms" - but then following this we are told that, in doing so, "Leadbetter tried to emulate the style of yodeling stars like Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry".  If Leadbelly was emulating Rodgers (which he most obviously was doing) and given that Rodgers died at the height of his enormous popularity five years earlier, I am tempted to ask; What is innovative?  As far as I am concerned, Leadbelly was doing exactly what most other so called blues/folksingers do, performing songs from a large and varied repertoire.  Anyone that attempted to earn a living from music on the streets or in saloons etc. would have to include at least a few popular songs of the day and by singing this Jimmie Rodgers type song that is exactly what our man was doing.  Other such material that Leadbelly had in his huge arsenal included songs from Gene Autry's later screen career such as "Springtime in the Rockies" and "Silver Haired Daddy of Mine."  The fact that commercial record companies only really were interested in recording so-called 'original' material has given us a rather slanted view on performers' repertoires - even the primitive sounding Charley Patton made an attempt at a pop song of the day, "Running Wild," and likewise Skip James with "So Tired."  Although in both cases, I think that their interpretations were so wild that they slipped past the record companies without recognition.
There are a couple of other things in the notes that make me smile, but in spite of this and in spite of the poor quality of the Salt Lake City session, I still find this to be a very interesting and worthwhile issue.
Frank Weston (March 14, 2000)

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