Leadbelly – Complete Commercial Recordings – 1935-1947 Vol 4 (1939-1947)
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DOCD-5310 Lead Belly Volume 4 (c. May to 27th October 1944)
Moe Asch and Capitol Recordings.
Lead Belly, vocal, 12-string guitar, piano
Texas country blues.
Includes; Sonny Terry, Paul Mason Howard, zither, Woody Guthrie.
Extensive, detailed booklet notes by Ken Romanowski.
Detailed discographical details.
During 1944 Lead Belly must have felt that he had gone as far as he could with his recording and concert activities in the New York vicinity. He had followed the career of Gene Autry closely (he even entertained the notion of himself becoming America’s first black singing cowboy) and as Autry gained national prominence through films Lead Belly began to feel that Hollywood was where he had to go for his big break. His association with the community of actors in New York did little to dispel this notion, and when they began suggesting that Lead Belly was perfect for the role of “De Lawd” in the upcoming film version of Green Pastures, the singer was ready to head west to seek his fortune.
In the months before Lead Belly left, Moe Asch began stockpiling recordings for future release, beginning with the series of songs that was released as the Asch album New Play Parties Songs (see DOCD-5228). A few blues standards were also cut, including Leroy Carr’s “In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down”, a remake of his own version of “Easy Rider”, and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Keep Your Hands Off Her” – the latter two titles with string bass and a bluesy single-string guitar accompaniment that sound more like Brownie McGhee or Broonzy than the credited Woody Guthrie. New versions of his own “Red Bird” (a children’s song originally cut at his first session for Asch in 1941), the track-lining and wood cutting songs “Line ‘Em” and “Juliana Johnson”, his original protest song “Bourgeois Blues” (initially released by Musicraft in 1939), and another remake of his take on Victoria Spivey’s “T. B. Blues” were recorded in addition to some of his newer topical material like “Jim Crow Blues”, the patriotic and anti-fascist “Mr. Hitler (Hitler Song)”, and the spirited and amusing “(I Don’t Want No More Of) Army Life”. With enough songs on the shelf for Asch’s upcoming releases, Lead Belly left his wife Martha behind in New York and headed for the promised land of California.
While he was in Los Angeles, Lead Belly ran into his old acquaintance Tex Ritter, who arranged an audition for him with Lee Gillette of the newly formed Capitol record label. Gillette helped sign Lead Belly and recordings were made at three sessions during October 1944 with the added accompaniment of Paul Mason Howard on zither on most of the tracks. The odd combination of instruments worked well, with Howard providing compelling blues-flavoured licks on the zither that blended seamlessly with Lead Belly’s twelve-string Stella guitar. The Capitol sessions are perhaps Lead Belly’s cleanest recordings from a technical standpoint, and he is in fine voice as he touches base with some of his best-known numbers. Samples of most of the types of songs in his repertory – from ballads, blues, work songs, and children’s tunes to his posthumously renowned “Irene” – are displayed in crystal clear versions highlighted by the contrast to Howard’s zither. Two fascinating examples of Lead Belly’s crudely effective piano techniques close this CD, as he pounds out a vocal and an instrumental version of the “Eagle Rock Rag” which would undoubtedly have brought the patrons of a barrelhouse out to the floor to participate in the dance from which the songs take their title.