Milestone Recordings in American Music

6/19/11

An Ending and a Beginning (1939)

As the decade drew to an end, 1939 was a light year for the blues in general, but the following two classics are heavy-hitters: a haunting, posthumous Delta ballad and a riveting folk-blues debut.

Robert Johnson
Love in Vain Blues(Vocalion 04630, 1939)

This posthumous single is Johnson’s most lovely recording, and one of the greatest odes to unrequited love in the history of the blues. Like so many blues songs, the story it tells is simple on its surface, but the delivery adds a depth of emotion that words cannot convey. Johnson plays a simple melody and keeps a slow, steady beat on guitar while calmly singing the melancholy lyrics about a departing lover: “When the train rolled up to the station, and I looked her in the eye / Well, I felt lonesome, I was lonesome, and I could not help but cry.” The emotional highpoint comes at the end when Johnson softly wails several wordless lines (save for the name of the departing lover: “Ooo, Willie Mae!”), before ending the song with a matter-of-fact statement: “All my love’s in vain.”

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (Vocalion 03416, 1937)

Lead Belly
Gallis Pole(Musicraft 227, 1939; Negro Sinful Songs, Musicraft 31, 1939)

John Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbetter while the latter was serving a sentence for attempted murder at the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana. Ledbetter, who went by the nickname Lead Belly, was a jewel of a find, a gifted singer and twelve-string guitarist with a diverse repertoire of folk and blues songs, many of his own composition. Once out of prison, he began a long recording career that established him as one of the most influential folk singers in history.

“Gallis Pole” is one of his best and most influential early recordings, and would later inspire Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole.” It is a good demonstration of Lead Belly’s ability to interweave spoken and sung parts and evolve lyrical and melodic themes throughout the course of a song. The story itself is fascinating (a jailed man tries to raise enough money to bribe his way out of being executed), and the performance is mesmerizing: a fast, ever-changing rhythm on guitar married to increasingly frantic vocals.

~ You may also like: Lead Belly, “Alberta” (unreleased ARC recording from 1935; Includes Legendary Performances Never Before Released, Fantasy F-24715, 1952)

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