on 27 April 2016
These recordings were arranged by Alan Lomax in 1940 with RCA-Victor, then the largest recording company in American, because he felt that Lead Belly's work should be better known and the record company was interested in expanding into folk music and educational material; earlier in the year Alan Lomax had arranged for Woody Guthrie's to record his Dust Bowl Ballads for the same company. Presumably RCA-Victor had an excellent studio and the best recording equipment and this certainly shows as the technical quality of the recordings is far superior to anything that Lead Belly recorded before and a good deal of what he recorded afterwards. The recordings have now been remastered and the clarity is really quite amazing, especially considering they were recorded over seventy-five years ago.
Alan Lomax teamed Lead Belly up with the Golden Gate Quartet, a very sophisticated (mainly) gospel singing group, a curious combination considering Lead Belly's raw style. He was presumably trying to produce recordings in the style of the prison singing that he and his father had recorded a little time before. Neither Lead Belly nor the Gates were particularly enthusiastic about this combination but it the main it worked very well. On the 15th June Lead Belly recorded six titles with the quartet and eight titles solo, accompanying himself on his 12-string guitar; two days later he recorded another eight titles solo and another six with the quartet. Six of the titles with the Gates appeared in a 78 rpm album and most of the titles were issued as 78 rpm singles around the same time; all the titles have since appeared here and there in various combinations over the subsequent years. However, here we have the complete sides issued in datal, if not quite in matrix , order with superior sound quality, having been taken from the metal masters rather than old 78's. Well, almost all as some of the titles had more than one take.
Particularly fine with the Golden Gate Quartet are 'Pick a Bale of Cotton', Yellow Gal, Line 'Em and Didn't Old John; and solo Lead Belly shows particularly fine voice in T B Blues, Roberta, Sail On and Good Morning Blues.
The accompanying notes are very good indeed, the authors being well versed in their subject. There is information about Lead Belly, the Golden Gate Quartet, the recording sessions and the songs themselves. Details of the sides are given with recording date, personnel and matrix number. There is also a useful reference to Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell's book on the Life of Lead Belly for those who want to learn more.
This is an excellent production and probably the best introduction to Lead Belly's work there is. It's a pity there are a couple of minor irritations such as 'Huddie' being spelled 'Huddy', and the feeling by the producers that they needed to subtitle the CD 'The Secret History of Rock and Roll'. It is also very expensive CD but here you do get the whole session with no gaps and no duplications. Hardly a star loosing point: perhaps I should get out more.