It seems risible to suggest that someone could be one of the absolute all-timers of American musical history, yet also an artist who has fallen through the gaps of that collective sound bank of listening choices that lifts some performers up and casts others downward. But so it goes with Huddie William Ledbetter, better known even to people who have never heard his music as Lead Belly, a John Henry-type figure whose life reads like something out of a William Randolph Hearst newspaper sensation story.
Born on a Louisiana plantation in early 1899, Ledbetter headed to Texas, where he played his steel guitar in whorehouses before killing a relative in a contretemps over a woman, which led to the chain gang. This is the bit that sounds utterly fanciful: Having charmed the Texas governor with his music, Lead Belly was turned back out into the world, eventually to be discovered by folklorist John Lomax.
Cue, then, one of the most stylistically free-ranging careers in the history of this country’s music, the span of which is distilled into this mighty primer of a box set from Smithsonian Folkways: 108 cuts over five discs, 16 of them previously unreleased. I’ve been listening to Lead Belly since I was in first grade — a common enough age to initially hear him, as he did a spate of children’s songs. Actually, he did a spate of everything; when pressed here by an interviewer to reveal how many songs he knew, Lead Belly replies, “I can sing 500 songs and never go back to the first one.”
Unless 500 actually means around 5,000, he’s being awfully cagey with the truth. This is the Lead Belly conundrum, though: He performed in so many styles — folk, blues, nascent rock ’n’ roll, shanties, reels, ditties for the kids, homespun yarns for the Stephen Foster-set, dirges, Calypso jaunts, political rags, accordion excursions — that he was never the go-to guy in any of them. If you dig blues, for instance, you probably go to Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters; Lead Belly was more like Willie Dixon, a guy who influenced everyone, and who pollinated things that you didn’t know he was pollinating until much later, after you’d done your homework. In other words, someone changing the course of music almost on the sly.
Which is odd, given the massive sonorities of Lead Belly’s sound. Disc One has what we might think of as the hits, the tunes you’ve heard so many people perform: the work-song bending-and-picking syncopation of “Cotton Fields,” the high-stepping “John Henry” (which doubles as apocryphal autobiography for Lead Belly’s own musical persona), the eminently singable “Midnight Special,” one perfectly rounded cadence after another.
The voice itself might as well be its own rail-splitter: febrile at times, as though over-wracked, but as resilient as the wind, and about as budgeable as a squat stone building. Son House and Charlie Patton could sound more elemental, but it’s not hard to imagine Lead Belly’s music serving as a soundtrack for the creation of the mountains themselves.
Children’s songs like “Sally Walker,” from 1942, hark back to British marriage plays; Lead Belly has a knack for giving them a festal quality, while overlaying the black loam of the South. You can dance readily to this music, and it’s key to note that Lead Belly wanted you to, clearly viewing himself as a gigging entertainer, even in the studio, the guy who wanted to make sure you got your legs up at your fish fry or who put you in a good mood over a few beers before the ballgame.
But for all of the gussy rhythms — which can stop just this side of overly cute — and legit power, there’s real subtlety at work, too, and in unlikely spots. Consider, for example, 1947’s “Pigmeat,” a Nabokovian ode to . . . let’s just say not the most right kind of love. Lead Belly’s voice is a veritable honey glaze, a would-be blues foodie wink in saucy form.
There are airshots as well from 1941 that have gone unheard since, which represent, along with the Beatles’ BBC sides and Elvis’s Hayride field recordings, some of the best live material ever to emit from a radio. Of course, all of this stuff is essentially live, in that Lead Belly wasn’t exactly overdubbing six guitar parts. His guitar, though, can be manically intense, as on 1949’s “Fannin’ Street.” If you listen to Robert Johnson, you’re familiar with those moments where you just can’t believe it’s only one person playing. Same idea here, in that there’s a natural incredulity that comes with hearing anyone play this fast, like maybe the tape was sped up.
Better still are the recordings that comprise a sort of blue hour for Lead Belly, the unaccompanied sides like “Black Betty” and “Go Down, Old Hannah” from the end of the singer’s life. I’m not sure that Moses wouldn’t have sounded like this if someone had been around to record him. And when Lead Belly duets with a recording of Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” making it seem like his voice is leading hers, it’s as though something supernal has walked up to something earthy, and suggested going for one hell of a dance.
Colin Fleming can be reached at email@example.com.