Thursday, March 26, 2015

Lead Belly - Play Parties in Song and Dance as Sung by Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter had a long and storied life, both in and out of music. Rather than reiterate the details, most of which can be found using much more knowledgeable sources, we'll keep it simple here by concentrating on what might interest you readers the most: Play Parties in Song and Dance as Sung by Lead Belly, his first collection of children's songs. When the album was first issued in 1941, Walter Winchell famously blasted its release, stating, “How could one issue a children’s record by a convicted murderer?” Again, check out one of the Lead Belly bios listed below to get the full story behind such an incendiary statement!

The songs on Play Parties were recorded during May and July 1941 for Asch Recordings, Moses Asch's indie record label, and released as a three-disc 78 rpm set that same year. Those six tunes were later issued on the Stinson Records label in 1952 (that's the image used here). "Ha, Ha Thisaway" is an upbeat song that highlights Ledbetter's enthusiastic 12-string strumming and bright, joyful singing. This particular sing along describes a somewhat difficult childhood, as the singer's dad leaves the family at 12 yrs, although his mom never whooped him and he seemed to have a good time at school. Like many of the children's tunes he performs, Lead Belly explains the movements and motions of the ring song "Little Sally Walker" in the tune's intro.

"Redbird" is a more spirited circle song than "Sally Walker" in that everyone is circling simultaneously with or without a partner. This is a great shouting tune for group performances as kids yell out the title of the song during the game. The spirited "Christmas Song," a holiday tune known variously as "Christmas Is A-Coming," "Almost Day," and "Chicken Crowing for Midnight,"  describes kids' excitement about Christmas morning as they play out in the yard 'til midnight and the chicken signals the approaching holiday hour. "Skip to My Lou" is the most universally popular song on Play Parties, and countless entertainers have recorded their version of the old tune. Pete Seeger covered Ledbetter's version on Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Little Fishes,  a 10-inch album released in 1955 by Folkways Records. "You Can't Lose Me Cholly" is an oddity in that it's based on the song "Can't Lose Me, Charlie" written by Harry S. Miller in the late 1890s. Miller was well-known for his (to our modern ears, disturbingly racist) minstrel songs, but the emphasis here is on Lead Belly's energetic 12-string work.

Much has been written about Lead Belly and his music, so I won't go into a detailed history here. But to get even more insight into these particular songs, check out The Leadbelly Song Book, edited by Moses Asch and Alan Lomax, published by Oak Publications in 1962; or The Leadbelly Legend, edited by John and Alan Lomax, published by TRO/Folkways Music in 1959. Additionally, the album notes for the Smithsonian Folkways CD Lead Belly Sings for Children contain lots of great info. And for more evidence of the power of his voice and guitar, dig specifically the tune "Gallis Pole," a tune from which Led Zeppelin generously borrowed for their song "Gallows Pole" on Led Zeppelin III.

Originally Released 1941; Asch Recordings

Track Listing
  1. "Ha, Ha Thisaway"
  2. "Little Sally Walker"
  3. "Redbird"
  4. "Christmas Song"
  5. "Skip to My Lou"
  6. "You Can't Lose Me Cholly"

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