“Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides”

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from http://pitchfork.com, http://nodepression.com, http://www.thebluegrasssituation.com, and http://blackgrooves.org:

FOUR REASONS TO DROP A CHUNK OF CHANGE ON “LEAD BELLY: THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS COLLECTION” (edited from Eryk Pruitt):

LEADBELLY’S DUET WITH BESSIE SMITH

Whoa. When I first put on this track, I have to say I was plenty revved up at the prospect of a track with Lead Belly singing duet with Bessie Smith. I mean, can you imagine…? What we get instead is Lead Belly singing along with a recording off a 78. We hear him listening to a record the same way we would: singing along with a legend. He is silent, reverent, and touchingly sweet. You can hear the deep respect he holds for Bessie in every breath and it’s amazing.

THE ESSAYS

One of the best parts of the collections are the liner notes. Glossy booklets written by scholars who also like to nerd out. The book has two of such essays. One by Robert Santelli, the Executive Director of the Grammy Museum, and another by Grammy-winning Smithsonian Folkways archivist Jeff Place. The Place essay is very in-depth and compelling and well worth multiple readings. Especially enlightening is the piece “Why He Sang Certain Songs” by his niece Tiny Robinson.

THE WNYC FOLK SONGS OF AMERICA RADIO SHOWS

Lead Belly sits in on two radio shows featuring his music. Lead Belly spent his later years in New York City in the nascent stages of the folk scene. He enjoyed a fine bit of notoriety and appeared on a couple radio programs. These sets on WNYC run six and seven songs, and the second one features the Oleander Quartet.

LINER NOTES

Not only are you getting five CDs with 108 tracks, but each of those tracks are given due diligence in the back half of the book. As you may know, you can buy 20 different Lead Belly albums and get 22 different recordings of “Goodnight Irene” or “Midnight Special.” The liner notes tell you precisely what is unique about the recordings included in the box set, or offer interesting anecdotes of each one. It’s an in-depth, immersive experience.

THE FINAL TRACK

The fifth CD of this set features selections from what are now considered Lead Belly’s “Final Sessions,” which were all recorded in the home of Frederic Ramsey around 1948. These showcase a level of intimacy that is not captured in his Library of Congress and radio sessions, as he performs while talking, laughing, and singing with those in the room.
It’s fitting that the final track on The Smithsonian Folkways Collection isn’t a song, but a brief monologue called “In the World”, based on a half-remembered conversation from long ago. It makes for a fitting epilogue to this monumental box set, primarily because it reveals Lead Belly’s role as an archivist of American music, passing tunes and ideas along from one person to the next, from one generation to the next. “We all gotta get peace together because we’re in the world together,” he muses. “I never heard nothing like it. Now you got it now.”

 

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