Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review: Lead Belly Sings for Children

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Released: March 23, 1999

Lead Belly is widely considered one of the greatest influences on modern American music, yet I know few who actually listen to him. That doesn't diminish his influence, but it does call into question whether he is directly relevant today or a generation or two removed. The follow-up question would then be, if he is no longer directly relevant, is that his flaw or ours? Lead Belly Sings for Children is able to answer the first question and at least hint at the answer to the second.

When I listened to this album for review, I deliberately did so with my kids present. If Lead Belly is singing for children after all, they may catch things that I, despite a strong distaste for adulthood, would miss at my age. I was hoping for some insight from them, unencumbered by life experiences, pretensions and soul-dulling pragmatism. What I got was...well, nothing. Perhaps my kids were just a little too young (they're four and one) or maybe they just watch too much TV to be engaged by this album, but I doubt it, because they both love music. My four-year-old likes Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin and Soul Coughing, not Barney. My one-year-old is mesmerized when I play guitar (and believe me, he's the only one who thinks it's a treat). I think it's really just that these naive little shows that mesmerized kids in person 60 years ago, have lost their effect. If Huddie Ledbetter was still alive, surely he could keep the ear of even the worst case of ADHD in person and his lessons would not be lost, but not on a recording, not today. So, his relevance may be a generation removed, coming to us through the intermediaries of 60s folk and blues, but who's fault is that? Perhaps, no one's. Perhaps, as one of those he directly influenced said, the times are a-changin'. Or maybe our generation is still waiting for a music video.

Still, Smithsonian Folkways, as always, provides some excellent information about the recordings, Lead Belly's goals and how he mixed the silly with serious to teach real life lessons. As an education, the albums is fantastic. But as children's entertainment, it is lost in time.

Rating: (kids) 4/10; (adults) 8/10

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