Blast from the Past

Everyone knows what being a rock and roll star means today. It means having your face on Rolling Stone, having your voice heard all over radio and having your private life picked apart by gossip-hungry airheads. Aspiring rock stars now know that making music is only half the job. Bedding beautiful, brain-dead groupies, signing autographs and admiring their own publicity photos is the other.

The cult of rock and roll celebrity has its roots in one roots music icon. Lead Belly used his singing prowess to court affection and, in two cases, to gain freedom from jail. Just because he lived under Jim Crow's wing and performed hillbilly music, which, along with the blues, would eventually become a foundation block for rock and roll, does not mean Lead Belly was any less self-conscious of his stature as a popular showman than Marilyn Manson or Britney Spears are of theirs today. If Rolling Stone had been around in the 1930s, you can be damn sure Lead Belly would have been pushing to get his mug on the cover.

But unlike the subjects of most R.S. covers, Lead Belly had some talent. Listening to Bridging Lead Belly, a new Rounder release of recently discovered tracks, is like sitting in on a campfire sing-along. And as with any impromptu musical get-together, patience is the key. It is hard for music lovers of any type today to be able to grasp the import and quality of what Lead Belly was doing when most hearing him have grown accustomed to, at the very least, contemporary pop and compact discs. These Lead Belly tunes Rounder has rounded up are from two scattershot sessions taped at the beginning of the singer's public career, in 1938, and near the end, in 1946. The first dozen songs were recorded at the BBC's New York studios by Felix Greene. Their sound quality is decent, considering the archaic recording circumstances, but still nothing like what one would hear on FM radio. The rest of the tunes were recorded at folklorist Hector Lee's house. They are the audial equivalents of answering machine messages.

And for people whose ears have been reared on, at the least, John Lee Hooker or Woody Guthrie, these Lead Belly tunes may sound simplistic. They are not. He sings each word, each with its own significance, as if he really meant it, as if he were directly talking to you when he moans, "I'm goin' get married / Oh, Lord / I'm goin' get married / Whoahhhh, Lord," as he does on "Julie Ann Johnson." Lead Belly's delivery is so natural it comes off as unrehearsed, unscripted, stream-of-consciousness. In fact, Lead Belly made up the lyrics to one particular tune, "Salt Lake City," as he went along. It is this immediacy of vocalizing and the way Lead Belly sings with down-home country-boy affectations that make him a musical giant (though the man was only five-foot-seven).

To our modern ears, though, Lead Belly's music may seem trite, tired, redundant. Quite simply, Lead Belly's music might give us a bellyache. For historical purposes or research, this record is fine. Great, even. But for casual listening or something to pop in the tape player on the way to the beach? Huh-uh.

So why talk about Lead Belly when the only things to say about him are academic? Well, for one thing, most people could stand to learn a little music history. When musical tastes go only as far back as disco and '80s pop, everybody should be wrestled down and forced to listen to something like this or Blind Willie McTell recordings or Harry Smith's Smithsonian Folkways anthology. And for another, there is inspiration here. This may sound cliché, but one listen to this record could probably rouse even the most latent musical stirrings in the blandest musician.

It is easy to get distracted by the antiquity of these 17 songs, none of which has ever been previously released. This feeling comes not from simple voyeurism, as some would claim, but from a general amazement at being able to look into the past, as one clearly can through this CD. You can almost see the sweat glistening off the men in the fields when Lead Belly sings the "Ox Driver's Song." Even though it is performed by Lead Belly in a studio, it is still a powerful glimpse of life in the fields 80-plus years ago, thanks in large part to Lead Belly's emotional singing. The structure and lyrics of the song, which is one of many Lead Belly learned in his youth and performed as an entertainer, are malleable. The song's narrator, an ox driver whose hands are too busy guiding the beast to pick up a guitar, sings an a cappella melody, which is what moves the song along. It becomes nonmelodic only when the singer stops singing to admonish the ox. All time signature is lost, but a unique rhythm to the un-music replaces it. Follow Lead Belly's singing voice, "Takin' my baby to the country store / I ain't bought my baby some calico," which is abruptly shifted to a conversational tone to address the buck, "Yaya, whoa! Back up, buck. C'mon, whoa." Lead Belly pauses, then picks right up singing again.

Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter in 1889 in northern Louisiana near the Texas border. Following his release from a Texas prison for murder -- literally singing his way out -- Lead Belly spent his first year of freedom in Houston, singing in Third Ward clubs and working for a local Buick dealership. He moved back to Louisiana in 1926 and shot another man in 1928. He pleaded self-defense and was not charged.

A ruckus at a party one night led Lead Belly to jail again in 1930. He was arrested and convicted of assault with intent to commit murder and was sentenced to 30 years in the state penitentiary in Angola. Again, Lead Belly sang himself free. This time to Governor O.K. Allen. The song, "Governor O.K. Allen," is included on Bridging.

The CD itself is packaged handsomely, and the liner notes are extensive and detailed yet absurdly academic. "Old Riley," reads the description in the notes, is "a song of hope and inspiration in that a man overcame the travails imposed by nature, and represented by fierce summer heat, a relentless bloodhound, and a turkey." Whoa! Back up, buck. That is some pretty deep stuff there.

Lead Belly was not that overtly sentimental, or political, though many special interests tried to claim him as their own once he made the New York hipster circuit in the 1940s. All the man knew, or really cared about, was a good melody and a happy audience.

And a nice profile shot.

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Anthony Mariani