Lead Belly “Live”
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The first session was recorded in New York City on 6 September 1947 and Lead Belly, although nearly always a solo performer, here with veteran jazz men from New Orleans. Lead Belly feels and conveys the blues in his interpretation of Good Morning Blues. He compliments legendary trumpeter Bunk Johnson whose horn we hear. Johnson had played with jazz’s early greats at the turn of the century, and had only recently been “re-located” and brought to New York. Lead Belly’s next song, Yellow Gal, was familiar to his fellow Louisiana musicians. A yellow gal was a fair- or light-skinned woman who could always find work in the clubs and social settings of the south. The third tune is titled, Borrow Love and Go, because a technician mistakenly thought Lead Belly was singing “Borrow” rather than the more reasonable and sensible “Bottle Up”. The expression “bottle up” means, “finish your drink”. Another and more grievous example of this kind of mis-hearing constantly occurred in Lead Belly’s Irene. He always sang “…I’ll GUESS you in my dream”. The word GUESS was used as a Louisiana localism meaning to imagine, to fantasize, to speculate. Northerners and others always wanted to hear the verb as “to see”, or more boldly “to get” or “to love”. The second component of 19 tracks were recorded on 15 June 1949, and are known as ‘the Austin concert’, a significant testimony to Lead Belly’s career. The importance of these recordings is in the fact that it was Lead Belly’s last performance, and he knew it. Lead Belly used the occasion of being at the University of Texas, Austin to summarize his career and say farewell; he did this with the words that he spoke and the songs that he chose to sing.
When the curtain was lifted on the Recital Hall stage Lead Belly was sitting, as he remained for the entire performance. His wife Martha stood by his side throughout the concert, and sang with him on a few songs. Indeed, the number Mary and Martha, was always dedicated to his wife and to her twin sister, Mary. In addition to conserving his strength, Lead Belly was also trying to measure his stamina and endurance in this the kick-off of a series of concerts. He sang for just a few seconds short of sixty minutes which included a short intermission and a finale after his last number. Even with his encore piece, I Want to Go Home, Lead Belly’s professionalism and stage craft skills were evident as he kept his on-stage performance to one hour exactly. His closing song conveys a strong sentiment to the audience. Lead Belly sings that he is glad to have returned to Texas and to have been so warmly received. He is also telling us that he is pleased that he had chosen a career in music and was able to entertain so many people. But his days are numbered and he is nearing the end of his ability to perform.
Although only an hour, this performance was captured for posterity having thankfully been recorded by staffers at the student radio station, KUT. Lead Belly probably sensed that this might be his last public concert and therefore sought to include much more in his performance than merely entertaining a live audience. He acknowledged two individuals who had been influential in shaping his career. And in addition to his past life, he looked to the future as well. Thus this CD can also be thought of as an epiphany piece, reflecting the length and breadth of Lead Belly’s life.