Whether Leadbelly actually ever wrote a song from scratch is debatable, but perhaps his real talent was his ability to distill traditional pieces to their central elements, then refine them from there into decidedly modern shapes that managed to still keep their folk character intact, creating, in essence, definitive versions. Songs like "Midnight Special" and "Rock Island Line" come immediately to mind. This differed from what Woody Guthrie did, which was to take traditional melodies and graft on new lyrics, making a new song from the shell of the old, and though his songs certainly sounded like old folk tunes, Guthrie's compositions were as new and utilitarian as a freshly minted penny. Guthrie's work, therefore, is grounded in tradition, while Leadbelly's is still very much a part of it -- the logical, modern extension of it. Furthermore, Leadbelly was adept, in his live shows particularly, at placing the song in cultural context, so that if he sang a field holler or a work song, he would demonstrate the song to his audience as much as sing it, showing its utility, all the while reconstructing and -- at times -- reinventing it. This collection from Document Records is both intriguing and a little sad. Comprised of three songs from a concert at New York's Town Hall on September 6, 1947, when Leadbelly was accompanied by jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson and his band, and 18 songs from a solo show in Austin, TX, on June 15, 1949, Live: New York 1947 & Austin, Texas 1949 is unfortunately not the singer at his best. The material with Johnson feels disjointed and is poorly recorded, although Leadbelly's introduction to "Good Morning Blues" is as succinct a definition of the blues as you'll ever hear. The Austin tracks are better recorded (the recordings were done by the student radio station KUT), but Leadbelly sounds weak and exhausted, although his gentle introductions to the songs hint at a very strong connection with the audience that evening. It seems obvious that he knew that this would be his last concert. The singer's health had been in decline, and he would die before the year was up. As a hushed goodbye in his native state, the Austin concert is a precious historical document, and on songs like "Ella Louise," a traditional track-lining holler, Leadbelly certainly retains his ability to both instruct and entertain, but his versions here of "Irene Goodnight" (there are two) are halting and shaky, and while our knowledge of his approaching passing makes them seem poignant, truthfully he did this signature song much better on other recordings. As a document of two of his last public appearances, this collection will be of interest to serious fans and collectors, but listeners looking for Leadbelly at his best should check out his marvelously intimate Folkways recordings.
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett
feat: Bunk Johnson Band