Album: “The Midnight Special” and Other Southern Prison Songs
Artist: Lead Belly
Huddie “Lead Belly “Ledbetter spent much of his life in and out of various southern penitentiaries. Despite his long list of felonies and misdemeanors, his musical abilities were so great that he was afforded several opportunities to record in professional studios. Folk music historian Alan Lomax was an early champion of Lead Belly’s work, which is how “The Midnight Special” and Other Southern Prison Songs enjoyed a successful release in 1940.
After releasing a collection of stripped-down country blues songs the previous year, The Midnight Special abrades things even further. This is blues music minimized to its bare essentials, taking heavy influence from call-and-response hollers and traditional spirituals.
Throughout the album, Lead Belly is joined by The Golden Gate Quartet, whose backing vocals emulate a chain-gang choir. Three of the songs are sung a capella and are filled with a raw power that evokes disfranchisement-era America. The rest of the songs, including the signature title track, are upbeat folk tunes that surprisingly showcase Lead Belly’s underrated pop instincts.
Lead Belly was unusually prolific throughout the 1940s, releasing a series of six LPs in just seven years, each including a wide range of diversity. Nevertheless, The Midnight Special is his truest and greatest achievement. By looking back to the genre’s origins, Lead Belly broke off his shackles and became a bona-fide blues master.