Prior to this record, Huddie Ledbetter was confined to the limitations of the recording technology of the day. This resulted in an abundance of two-to-three minute long gems (as much as would fit on an acetate disc) which, while brilliant, obscured the essence of Leadbelly's artistry as a "songster". Fortunately for us and the evolution of popular music as a whole, shortly before this giant of a man (who survived having his throat cut, being shot at by the chain-gang boss as he escaped with ball-and-chain in hand, a suicide attempt as a last resort from prison, and the finicky tastes of New York high society which regarded him as little more than an amazing novelty) succumbed to Lou Gehrig's Disease, new technology was introduced that allowed him to loosen up and let the music flow naturally.
And a motherlode of music it is. While the first CD is comprised of accapella field hollers and spirituals, the other three are filled with some of the most incredible guitar work you'll ever hear, bar none. As Huddie (pronounced Hyoo-dee) himself explains to the listener, he learned guitar "sittin' by the bass-side of the piana" in honky-tonks on Shreveport, Louisiana's Fannin Street. Therefore his aggressive 12-string guitar style is informed by a rollicking boogie-woogie barrelhouse/ragtime feel, that often sounds like several guitarists at once. This is best exemplified in his own ode to Fannin Street, "Cry For Me", and the rag "Easy, Mr. Tom", which has enjoyed many permutations, "Hot Dog" by Blind Lemon Jefferson and "Cannonball Rag" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band among them. As Leadbelly comments as the tune ends, "It's so easy when you know how."
Leadbelly knew some thousand songs, and this collection is merely the tip of the iceberg. It includes some of his best-known work, "Goodnight Irene", "Grey Goose", "Midnight Special", and his version of "Easy Rider" ("rider" was slang for girlfriend). It also includes his interpretations of the work of Stephen Foster (of "Camptown Races" fame, and the first "pop star"), some of the most beautiful and haunting melodies, "Springtime in the Rockies" and "I'm Alone Because I Love You". "Salty Dog" finds him clapping the beat between guitar strums. He even sings a whole song in pig-latin (after explaining what pig-latin is). Also included is "Sweet Mary", written for Governor Pat Neff, which won him a pardon from prison ("If I had you Gov'na Neff like you got me/ I'd wake up in the mornin' I'd set you free...")
Occasionally he pauses to take a drink or serve up an anecdote to set up a song, strumming a chord to tune as he speaks. You feel as though you're in the room with him, watching his roughened hands play across the strings.
Sadly, perhaps his greatest known song, popularized by Nirvana, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (also called "In the Pines"), is missing from this collection. But apparently Kurt Cobain was introduced to Leadbelly through Last Sessions, and it was one of his favorite albums. Also regrettably missing is "John Hardy", the outlaw ballad rocked up by Uncle Tupelo.
Leadbelly is unique among much early blues music, which seems to often be perceived as depressing. Leadbelly's work is uplifting, joyous, funny (and fun), and perfect for inspiring a good mood. There's nothing stale about it-- it's as vibrant as the day it was set to tape. As Leadbelly sings, "Somebody should ask you people who made up this song/ Tell 'em Huddie Ledbetter done been here and gone..."