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Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 219-229
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Lead Belly Reissues as Sound Documentary:
From Item to Event
Lead Belly's Last Sessions, 1994. Recorded by Frederic Ramsey Jr. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CDs (4) SF CD 40068/7. Notes by Anthony Seeger, Jeff Place, Matt Walters, Frederic Ramsey Jr., Moses Asch, and Sean Killeen.
Lead Belly: Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 1), 1996. Compiled by Jeff Place, Anthony Seeger, Matt Walters, and Pete Reiniger. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD SF CD 40044. Notes by Jeff Place.
Lead Belly: Bourgeois Blues (Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 2), 1997. Compiled by Jeff Place and edited by Peter Seitel. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD SF CD 40045. Notes by Woody Guthrie and Jeff Place, edited by Peter Seitel.
Lead Belly: Shout On (Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 3), 1998. Compiled by Jeff Place. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings CD SF CD 40105. Notes by Pete Seeger, Jeff Place, and Kip Lornell.
We are fortunate to have Lead Belly's Last Sessions available. It is not only a document of an important figure in American music, it is also a document of an important moment in the history of sound recordings. Originally published in 1954 by Folkways Records, it consisted of ninety-four separate items, mainly songs, on four twelve-inch LP records in two double-sleeved albums that were replaced after the first printing by boxes. In 1994 Smithsonian Folkways republished it in this four-CD boxed set that adds two previously unissued songs and some additional notes while retaining the original notes and sequencing. Each CD contains both sides of one original LP. This is the first time it has been reviewed in this journal. Following its reissue, Smithsonian Folkways released the three-volume Lead Belly Legacy series that brings together another ninety-four titles. Some of these are reissues, while others were previously unissued. Almost all were recorded prior to Last Sessions, the set on which this review focuses.
The story of the famous African American singer and guitarist Huddie Ledbetter has been told in print more than once, most recently by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell in their 1992 biography, the most authoritative and detailed account to date (The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, HarperCollins, 1992). Born in Louisiana in 1888, Ledbetter was "discovered" by John A. Lomax and his young son Alan in 1933 while recording African American folksongs for the Library of Congress at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola. He was serving a sentence for assault with intent to murder. He had acquired the nickname "Lead Belly," based on the syllables of his last name, during an earlier prison term in Texas. In his later years the name would be spelled as one word—when this record set was originally released, the title was Leadbelly's Last Sessions. Ledbetter preferred the two-word form and, according to Sean Killeen, "never referred to himself as Lead Belly [in] either two words or one. . . . [T]his was his professional name, . . . his exterior persona" (Lead Belly: More Than a Name, Lead Belly Letter 2
One of the first songs the Lomaxes recorded him singing was "Irene," his version of a folk recomposition of Gussie L. Davis's "Irene Good Night," a pop song from 1886. It was, perhaps, the best-known piece in his repertoire. Scant months after his death in late 1949, it was featured on a hit record by the Weavers, a group from the same New York folk-music scene he had found fame in during the 1940s (there are two versions of "Irene" on Last Sessions: disc 3, track 15; disc 4, track 7). This was the first of a number of posthumous hits that made him an [End Page 219] icon of the folk boom, providing Folkways with a youth market for sets like Last Sessions.
Ledbetter was a talented singer and a unique twelve-string guitar stylist who had a large, eclectic repertoire that ranged from Child ballads to Gene Autry tunes and included convict work songs, blues...