In early July of 1933, Alan and John Lomax visited Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana with the intention of recording the music of the inmates who lived there. That day, Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, cut his first recorded version of what became known as "Goodnight Irene" and 11 other songs, opening a career that would keep his name alive more than a half-century after his death, carried far beyond the boundaries of Louisiana and the United States. Those sides are not on this CD but the sides that he cut on their next visit, a year later, are here. The runs, fills, fingerpicking, and strumming heard on this disc are at a virtuoso level to match the work of just about any bluesman playing in 1934.
On "Ella Speed," which clocks in at nearly six minutes, Leadbelly doesn't even keep a particularly quick tempo, yet he generates a range of sound suggesting that more than his lone guitar is accompanying him. "Red River" is just as startling, with Leadbelly shouting out the lyrics like a field holler as his guitar chimes and surges, alternating the lyrical and sweet with the emphatic and powerful. There are a number of classics-to-be on this disc, including the title track, "Irene," "Take a Whiff on Me," and "Roberta," making this an essential piece of Leadbelly's output. The CD transfer is clean enough to pull out some of the ambient sound behind the performance, giving a vague sense of the space and place. There were earlier blues recordings, to be sure, and Leadbelly recorded hundreds of songs in the 15 years that followed, but the impact of these early recordings cannot be underestimated.