In honor of Lead Belly's birthday, I'm devoting this week's posts on Pratt Songs to his music. Today's review is a vinyl copy of Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs.... (You can get the same recording on CD from Smithsonian Folkways.) Last Tuesday's post was a review of the only Lead Belly recording in the EPFL catalog, a vinyl copy of Keep Your Hands Off Her. Hopefully, the good people over at Pratt will order some Lead Belly CDs soon!
Lead Belly only plays on one song on this album, but it's a great example of why he was so awesome. His rough voice on "We Shall Be Free" stands out in stark contrast against the other singers. All of the musicians are warm, but there's a rich earthiness in Lead Belly's voice that the other musicians don't possess. That quality makes this song shine in a way that nothing else on the album does.
That's not to say the other 13 tracks are bad. I've been in awe of Sonny Terry's harmonica playing since I first heard On My Journey: Paul Robeson's Independent Recordings. Cisco Houston's fine playing is all over the album, but his voice is mostly relegated to a supporting role. Bess Hawes has a lovely backup voice, and she is yet another of the many Smithsonian Folkways artists whose music I need to explore. Unfortunately, most of Woody Guthrie's performances here don't really grab me. The notable exceptions are "Hard Travelin'," "The Rising Sun Blues," and "Nine Hundred Miles," the latter of which has some great fiddle playing by Guthrie.
Take my rating lightly on this one, because my goal was to hear Lead Belly, not Woody Guthrie. With that said, I'm not entirely sure why this album is considered to be such a classic. Apparently, Guthrie and his friends recorded these songs in Moses Asch's studio in New York during the '40s, but Asch didn't release them on his Folkways label until 1962. That doesn't surprise me, because these sound like the kinds of songs that would sit on the shelf at the record label for a decade or two before getting released. The album is worth hearing, but it's not as inspired as some of Guthrie's other recordings.
And frankly, I wish there were more collaborations between Guthrie and Lead Belly. Their voices are completely different, yet they complement each other beautifully. There's a playful energy on "We Shall Be Free" that isn't on any of the other songs. I would've been really irritated if I'd bought this album based on the title, and then discovered that a more accurate name would've been Woody Guthrie sings Folk Song with Leadbelly.
Like many covers, the EPFL has gutted and repackaged this one. I normally kind of resent their efforts, but the fact that this album has remained in circulation for over 30 years proves they're doing something right. There's something wonderful about seeing the scrawls and stamps on the sleeve: "Spots, Side 1, Feb 20 1974, Officially Noted. Scratches, Both Sides, Officially Noted, Feb 24 1975." The original pocket for a check-out card is still stuck onto the sleeve, and some lazy clerk put a sticker with due dates right on the front cover about 10 years ago.
As for the actual packaging, the cover is a shadowy black & white photo that beautifully captures a certain aspect of Guthrie's music. An insert that came with the original album is taped to the back of the EPFL package, and it contains lyrics, an introduction by Pete Seeger, and sheet music for every song. Sheet music was an important source of entertainment for families before TV and the Internet, and it's easy to overlook the fact that Folkways Records adamantly encouraged their listeners to actively participate with the music instead of passively listening to it.
Listen if you like: Any of the artists on the album, classic folk music, Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue albums.
If it were food, it'd be: A stew, the kind that contains lots of random stuff that was leftover in the fridge. Every once in a while you get one bite with the perfect mix of ingredients, but for the most part, it has a bit too much of this and not quite enough of that.