|Personnel: Lead Belly (vocals, guitar, 12-string guitar, accordion); Dave Van Ronk, Sam Porky Hutchins, John Cephas, John Jackson, Josh White, Josh White, Jr., Pink Anderson, Snooks Eaglin, Warner Williams, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee (vocals, guitar); Walter Hensley (vocals, banjo); Earl Taylor (vocals, mandolin); Sonny Terry, Jazz Gillum (vocals, harmonica); Memphis Slim (vocals, piano, organ); Horace Sprott, K.C. Douglas (vocals); Arbee Stidham (guitar); Phil Wiggins (harmonica); Gene Moore (drums).
|The African American ballads collected on this intriguing set from Smithsonian Folkways don't differ in obvious ways from the British ballad tradition, with the songs in both streams dealing frequently with death, often from romance gone awry, and several of the selections here ("Mouse on the Hill," "Stewball," "St. James Infirmary," "Gallis Pole") are actually British or Irish in origin. A case could be made that the black ballad tradition in America has a bit more humor to it, more improvisation, and that the singer is more likely to drop suddenly into first person in the lyric, thus personalizing the story, but these would be selective observations rather than codified rules of form, and the fact remains that a ballad's main job, whatever its source, is to tell a story, and if that story should come to a tragic close, all the better for its remembrance. And the stories told here have certainly been remembered, for these songs have been recorded numerous times by black and white singers alike, and tunes like "John Henry" and "Casey Jones" will be familiar to even the most casual listener. In the end, whether sung by blacks or whites, these are American ballads, having absorbed all manner of cultural flotsam, and if some of them are European in origin, they have been thoroughly stretched, altered, and reassembled into essentially new compositions, even if they retain a grain of the original song's intent. "St. James Infirmary," done wonderfully here by Snooks Eaglin, is a case in point. The song derives from an old British broadside called "The Unfortunate Rake," which details the fatal consequences of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, and the American transfiguration of the song retains that consequence, but is a good deal more vague about the events that led up to it, focusing instead on the narrator's preparations for death. It is a beautifully sad and melodic dirge, and remains so in a further variant, "The Streets of Laredo," which is the song in its next stage as a completely Americanized ballad. "Delia's Gone," sung here by Josh White, Jr., has done even more traveling as a ballad. The song was based on a real incident that took place on Christmas Eve in 1900, when Moses Houston shot and killed Delia Green. Both were only 14-years-old. A version of the ballad was collected in Georgia in 1906, but the song wasn't widespread at the time. Somehow the song reached the Bahamas, where the mento banjo player Blind Blake Higgs recorded it in 1952, and with the mid-'50s pop calypso boom just starting to pick up, Blind Blake's version was covered by numerous American singers, including Josh White, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte, thus re-transforming "Delia's Gone" into an American ballad again, albeit with an obvious Caribbean lilt. Leadbelly's version of "Gallis Pole," featured here in a live radio transcription, is also worth noting, since it is an explosive take on the British child ballad "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," only with a complete reversal of the plot at the end, changing the song from a statement supporting true love to a cautionary tale about its cruelty. Even at 22 songs, Classic African American Ballads only scratches the surface of the American ballad. Here's hoping for a volume two. ~ Steve Leggett