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LeadBelly's 10 Best Blues Albums

Updated on August 31, 2011

Lead Belly or Leadbelly as he was sometimes known was born as Huddie William Ledbetter some time between 1985 and 1889 in Mooringsport, Louisiana.

He had a tough upbringing and during his early years he was often in trouble with the law and spent about a year in Jail for carrying a firearm, then a further 7 years in the early 20's for killing one of his relatives, and then again for 4 years for attempted homicde.

Each time he was incarcerated he amazingly seemed to charm people with his ability and so therefore achieve an early release. Despite or maybe even because of all this jail time Lead Belly became a virtuoso performer. He was probably most famous for his twelve string guitar playing although he was equally accomplished on the piano, the mandolin and the harmonica.

Lead Belly was responsible for a vast catalogue of blues and folk standards which include "Rock Island Line," "The Midnight Special," and "Cotton Fields.". Lead Belly died aged 61 on 6th December 1949 in New York.

1. Best of Lead Belly

The Best of Lead Belly compilation is the perfect introduction to Lead Belly and the production values on the sound recordings is very good indeed. The CD includes a very good smattering of most of Lead Belly's best work including "Goodnight Irene" and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night". Whilst this is not a definitive collection, with some big omissions, the selection can't be faulted and the whole thing is very easy to listen to and to appreciate.

2. Leadbelly Sings For Children

Despite having served 7 years in prison in the early twenties Lead Belly's music and his character had a huge affinity with children of all ages. He somehow managed to mix straight kids songs in with spirituals, work songs and traditional blues standards in a way that was easily accesible for children.

The record Leadbelly Sings For Children is re-release with additional material of a 60's record that was in itself a compilation of music recorded at various childrens concerts and in studios in the 1940s. On the record you get to hear Lead Belly's rapport with his young audience and it is obvious why he appealed to them. The CD includes all time classics like "Midnight Special" and "Boll Weevil" along with other songs like "Skip to My Lou" and "Jimmie Crack Corn" to this he adds doses of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Pick a Bale of Cotton" to mix up a unique concoction. A truly eclectic mix that somehow works.

3. Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 1

Where Did You Sleep Last Night is a collection of remastered recordings from the original acetates that were recorded between 1941 and 1947 in New York. The playlist follows the same play list as the tribute album that was released in 1949 just after his death with some additional outtakes and alternate takes.

Due to the fact that the recordings have been remastered the sound quality is pretty good and the music is basically just Lead Belly and his 12 String or singing acapella. Many of his best known works are included, "Goodnight Irene", "The Grey Goose" and "Rock Island Line".

This is a good introduction to Lead Belly and is very pleasant to listen to.

Bourgeois Blues: Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 2

Bourgeois Blues is the second set in the three set series of Lead Belly's performances recorded by Moses Asch' studio in New York during the 1940s (see also number 3 above). Again these recordings have been completely remastered from the original acetates and so the sound quality is pretty good. The CD notes that accompany this release are also encyclopaedic and extremely informative.

This CD contains such gems as "Midnight Special" and "Gallis Pole" as well as "Digging My Potatoes". This Second Volume virtually picks up from where the First volume finished and is probably as indespensible as that other volume.

Shout On: Leadbelly Legacy, Vol. 3

Shout On is the 3rd volume of the remastered acetates from Moses Asch's studio. As with numbers 3 and 4 above the sound quality is excellent and the performances are Leadbelly at his absolute best. This volume has the added interest that it features some accompaniment from Woody Guthrie.

This album features the original Shout On LP in its entirety plus an additional 17 tracks. This CD includes the track "Governor Pat Neff" which Lead Belly wrote in jail to convince the governor, Pat Neff to pardon him after he'd served the minimum 7 years of his 35 year jail term. As was true of much of Leadbellys life it seemed to do the trick. In conjunction with the other two releases in this series the CD notes for this volume are voluminous.

6. Let It Shine On Me

Let It Shine On Me is a new re-released CD of Leadbelly's Library of Congress recordings and covers 16 tracks from between 1934 and 1942 encompassing blues standards, spirituals, and work songs. There are also some spoken pieces where Leadbelly talks about cattle herding and the music that he listened to whilst he was growing up.

This CD feature the tracks "Howard Hughes," "Mr. Hitler," "The Scottsboro Boys," and "The Roosevelt Song." which show that Lead Belly, an activist, considered that the blues were the perfect vehicle for him to comment on the important issues of the day.

8. Midnight Special

Midnight Special is the first title in the three volume Library of Congress Recordings series which was recorded rather primitively in the 1930s by folklorists John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

What makes this CD special are the songs that were recorded by Lead Belly when he was still a guest of the Angola State Prison. These recordings were allegedly recorded as he sat there in shackles and this setting seemed to inspire Leadbelly to perform some of his greatest versions of these tunes. It was performances such as these that inspired the Lomax's to petition for his release from Prison, the second time in his life that his music had saved him.

Admittedly the sound on these recordings is not up to today's standards but the important legacy that they purvey is worth the price of admission.

7. Absolutely the Best

Absolutely the Best is a good if rather short compilation of Lead Belly's work. Although it deserves its place on the list due to the selection of songs included and for some peoples taste the brevity of the CD may make it appealing.

If you're just starting to discover Lead Belly this collection probably isn't a bad place for you to start. It includes some of his most popular songs such as "In New Orleans," "The Bourgeois Blues," "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," "Midnight Special," and "Goodnight Irene." However my one major gripe is why on earth on a 15 track Best Of compilation would you include 2 versions of the same song, "John Hardy,", when there are so many other more important tracks that you could have included.

9. The Definitive Leadbelly

The Definitive Leadbelly is the Grand daddy of all the Lead Belly compilations. This beauty is a bumper 3 CD Box Set with an extraordinary 75 tracks included. This is the motherlode of Lead Belly.

Pretty much everything you could possible think of his here and more, the sound quality is good however the CD notes are pretty bare and you would have thought that something of this sheer magnitude would have deserved more. However that is small beer when you consider what you are getting.

However I wouldn't recommend listening to this in one sitting though.

10. Lead Belly's Last Sessions

If you thought The Definitive Leadbelly at number 9 was big then Lead Belly's Last Sessions takes the biscuit. This 4 CD collection is a truly remarkable historical document. The songs were recorded incredibly over just three nights in 1948, which was only a year before his death, these are the only commercial recordings that Lead Belly made on magnetic tape. Lead Belly tried to record as much of his repertoire as he could, so you get spirituals, work songs, childrens ditties, field holler, ballads, autobiographical pieces and much more.

The other remarkable thing about these recordings is that the tape just continues to roll between each take and so we get to eavesdrop on Lead Belly's shift in moods and changes of interest as he is working. Also amazingly most of the first disk is sung acapella as Lead Belly had forgotten to bring his guitar!

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