Lead Belly: Keep Your Hands Off Her

In honor of Lead Belly's birthday, I'm devoting this week's posts on Pratt Songs to his music. Today, I reviewed the only Lead Belly recording in the EPFL catalog, a vinyl copy of Keep Your Hands Off Her. (You can buy the same songs on a CD titled Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs from Smithsonian Folkways.) On Friday, I'll review a vinyl copy of Woody Guthrie Sings Folksongs, which includes one song with Lead Belly. Hopefully, the good people over at Pratt will order some Lead Belly CDs soon!

I've known Lead Belly's name for years, but I never bothered to listen to his music. It didn't matter that nearly every great rock band -- from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana -- has praised Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), I just never cared enough to listen. But then I checked out Classic Railroad Songs from Smithsonian Folkways from the EPFL. When I heard his recording of "Linin' Track," I was floored.

Lead Belly was amazing. I don't even know how to describe his voice, other than by saying it was real. It's not trained, it's not refined, and it's not pretty. It's hard and flawed, and it's completely compelling. Apparently, Lead Belly held audiences captive when he performed. When you hear his voice, it's easy to understand why; something about the man was magnetic.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
There are probably better introductions to Lead Belly, but to my ears, Keep Your Hands Off Her is a perfect place to start. The a capella "Good-Good-Good (Talking, Preaching)" is one of the most delightful portrayals of heaven that I've ever heard, and "Linin' Track" proves there's far more to good rhythm than playing in perfect time to a metronome. "Corn Bread Rough" demonstrates his skill on the accordion, and if it doesn't make you want to get up and dance, you might want to check your pulse. "Stewball" and "The Blood Done Sign My Name (Ain't You Glad)" have been stuck in my brain with a tenacity that is usually reserved for cheesy pop songs like Hanson's "MMMBop."

It's worth noting that the EPFL's copy of this record sounds fine on speakers, but it's virtually unlistenable on headphones due to some kind of imbalance between the left and right channels. The $15 you'd spend on buying this CD from Smithsonian Folkways is absolutely worthwhile, though, and I highly recommend it.

Packaging: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I like this cover art a lot. It's a painting of a woman provocatively posed in a red dress, and it makes me want to listen to the album and see exactly who she is and why I need to keep my hands off her. Otherwise, the package is disappointing. There's no gatefold, and the inner sleeve is plain. There's a Woody Guthrie excerpt on the back, titled "Leadbelly is a hard name," that's interesting, but is far too short to provide any meaningful information. The cover of the CD release is just a black & white photo of Lead Belly. It's a good photo, but the late '50s / early '60s design of the vinyl release is more interesting to me. The CD includes the same essay by Guthrie.

Listen if you like: music that is memorable and catchy, performed by musicians who sing in a straightforward and honest way. But also, listen if you like bands who were directly influenced by Lead Belly, like Nirvana or Zeppelin.

If it were food, it'd be: flapjacks in heaven


bob_vinyl said...

I was surprised by the condition of the LP. It had dates stamped on it by EPFL as far back as 1973, so it's been around the block a few times, yet it is entirely listenable (even if headphones are an issue).

bob_vinyl said...

Now, I'll buy into Lead Belly's influence on Zeppelin, but I really question Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was one of the most self-conscious musicians of all time. It wasn't that he was faking who he was, but that he seemed so completely unsure of himself. His claim is as pretentious as his derogatory comments about Pearl Jam when the two bands topped the charts. By making such a statement, he showed quite clearly that he was motivated by anything but the honesty that is essential to Lead Belly's music. It's probably stupid comments like that pushed his wife to have him killed.