This review is written by Dai Woosnam,firstname.lastname@example.org, 7/02
This is the second review in as many months where “chance circumstance” raised its bitter-sweet head. This time, just as I was about to listen to the CD, news came through of the death of the great American folklorist, Alan Lomax. And Lomax of course, was the man who, with his father, discovered Huddie Ledbetter (soon to be much better known as “Leadbelly”) in Louisiana State Penitentiary, when they were touring the Southern States seeking to record folk performers for The Library of Congress.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Richard Flohil, in his immensely readable liner notes, shows how Leadbelly’s influence was such that his music would even jump continents, and be the cause of a new musical craze in Britain: the “Skiffle” of the 1950s.
Leadbelly did not just change the world of MUSIC: he also changed people’s LIVES. And one such was a young English kid called John Baldry, born at the start of the most perilous decade in British history. When the British Commonwealth stood alone against the Nazis.
But when the austerity of the forties turned into the Bright New Dawn of the years 1953/54 – the “British” conquest of Everest, The coronation of a new young Queen of England, and a Briton being the first man to run a 4 minute mile – Britain became more confident and less insular. They looked to America for music: especially its jazz . (All those off-duty black “GI Joes” walking the highways and byways of Britain, often segregated from their white colleagues, had won the support of the ordinary British person. The British sense of “fair play” was affronted by the thought that many black American soldiers were stopped by their commanding officer from dancing with the British girls in the local church halls.)
The 14-year-old Baldry heard two Leadbelly songs sung by the young Lonnie Donegan, noted the name of the writer, and then sought out his work. Soon he began to master the Leadbelly canon. And before many years, Baldry (now “Long John” Baldry) had achieved real fame in Britain. The early to mid Sixties were here, and I remember him vividly, seeing as I was only 6 years his junior.
Very tall (hence the nickname) and singing what struck me then as being raw and uncompromising stuff. Girls screaming in the audience. Dressed a bit like a dandy.
And then before I knew it, Flower Power was with us, and I had become a Fundamentalist Folkie: to the extent that I shut myself off from other genres. And Baldry disappeared from my consciousness. Until now.
Where had he been all this time? Well, he had been in Canada, for nearly 30 years! He had built a respectable musical career there. It seems like just yesterday, he was sending the teenage girls wild here in the UK, on my little black and white TV.
Now, checking with my friends who are BLUES aficionados, it turns out that THEY knew all along where he was, because he made almost annual trips to Europe to play the BLUES circuit.
Isn’t it sad how we compartmentalise music? We do not look into the next person’s cultural garden. LJB might have been performing in the next town to me, yet I was too blinkered to notice.
And this album proves that was MY loss.
He delivers all the Leadbelly favourite songs of mine, playing authoritative 12-string guitar. (Not quite “all” alas: “Goodnight Irene” seems to have not made the final selection. I was particularly looking forward to hearing if Baldry sang “GET you in my dreams” a la Huddie, rather than the more antiseptic “SEE you”, as favoured by most performers.)
And do you know something? Baldry helped me REDISCOVER that old black rascal. Helped me listen to the songs afresh. In this, I was helped by the fact that Baldry NEVER tries to impersonate Leadbelly: indeed if his vocal style is redolent of anyone’s, well, it could be said he comes across as a British-sounding Satchmo (well a “sotto voce” one, anyway).
Throughout, his excellent backing musicians provide sterling service. No dud cuts. Track 11 (“We’re In The Same Boat Brother”) is my pick. Here, his phrasing and breath control prove top-drawer.
But best of all are the two “bonus tracks” that occur after a two minute hiatus. Now, normally, these bonus tracks are invariably an excuse for some self-indulgent mumbo jumbo. Not here. We have two that are both around 6 minutes long, and two that are also both GEMS.
The second one has LJB recalling the past, and doing so in a beautifully modulated “Oxbridge” English. No hint of the Maple Leaf about it. The kind of English that would get him straight into the Royal Shakespeare Company WITHOUT an audition.
But it was the first “bonus” that really got to me. An interview from 1993 with Alan Lomax. He must have been in his late 70s then, but sounded a young 39. Especially when he hollered in an approximation of the early Leadbelly singing style.
And it occurred to me that the day that I rediscovered Leadbelly (not to mention Long John Baldry too!), I was listening to the man who had discovered Huddie in the first place!
And by some strange symmetry, as one ARRIVED, another DEPARTED.
And now it is ME who departs this review. If you have never heard Leadbelly, and want to buy a “starter” album, I’ll tell you something that might enrage true Leadbelly fans. Buy THIS one. Long John Baldry somehow picks the locks of the songs more quickly than The Master, and you are INSIDE each song BEFORE YOU KNOW IT. Somehow he makes them more accessible, without compromising their integrity.
Good to know BALDRY’S alive; good to know the SONGS are alive: and heck,
good to be made to feel that THIS REVIEWER TOO, is also very much alive.
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