Dan Zanes and Friends: Lead Belly, Baby!
Smithsonian Folkways – 2017
The opening page of the liner notes for Lead Belly, Baby!, the debut release from Dan Zanes on Smithsonian Folkways Records struck an immediate chord with me. He recalls getting his first library card at age 7 and discovering the vinyl records for loan in the basement of his library in Concord, New Hampshire – “Shelves and shelves of them! Flat, black circles the size of dinner plates in colorful cardboard sleeves decorated with artwork and photos. Those records were where the music came from, and those were what I cared about. I told the librarian I was interested in the guitar, and she suggested that I look through the Folk section.” The album he took home was by the king of the 12-string guitar – Leadbelly. He chose it because it had a picture of a man on the cover holding a guitar.
I’m not sure many people would share that same experience now with the changing face and declining numbers of libraries but mine was similar. I can still remember rushing home with my first library record chosen because of the cover featuring two old Highland crofters leaving a burning home – it was Silly Wizard’s ‘So Many Partings’.
Back to the album in hand, Zanes’ discovery completely changed his view of the world and his place in it. When he listened it was magic. “I could picture Lead Belly playing the guitar in my kitchen—that’s what it sounded like—and I could picture myself right there with him!”
Zanes now presents a fresh vision of Lead Belly’s music for a new generation with a little help from his friends. Experience Lead Belly’s songs through a new lens as Dan Zanes and Valerie June, Chuck D., Aloe Blacc, and many others celebrate an American musical icon. Take a listen to Rock Island Line featuring Billy Bragg…many will recall Lonnie Donegan’s fast skiffle version which became a hit in 1956. This, therefore, seems the perfect song choice for Bragg who is also something of a skiffle historian having recently released his book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. That said, as with all the songs on the album, they contain a colourful vibrancy – Dan’s DNA – folk music reimagined.
The 40-page booklet that accompanies the album is, as you’d expect from Folkways, a lovely piece of work. It features an introduction from Dan as well as an intro to each artist that features. There’s also notes by curator Jeff Place on Leadbelly’s life and lyrics, credits and some lovely photos. It’s a thing of beauty and equally fascinating as to how Dan and his friends have interpreted some of those classic folk songs.
Lead Belly, Baby! Tracklisting
01 More Yet – Dan Zanes feat. Shareef Swindell
02 Rock Island Line – Dan Zanes feat. Billy Bragg
03 Ha-Ha This a Way – Dan Zanes feat. Tamar Kali
04 Julie Ann Johnson – Dan Zanes feat. Jendog Lonewolf
05 Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie – Dan Zanes feat. Madame Marie Jean Laurent & Ceddyjay
06 Polly Wee – Dan Zanes feat. Father Goose and Little Goose
07 Boll Weevil – Dan Zanes feat. Aloe Blacc and Pauline Jean
08 New York City – Dan Zanes feat. Claudia Eliaza
09 Skip to My Lou – Dan Zanes feat. Chuck D. and Memphis Jelks
10 Take This Hammer – Dan Zanes feat. Valerie June
11 Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song) – Dan Zanes feat. Sonia de los Santos, Elena Moon Park, & José Joaquin Garcia 2:53
12 Red Bird – Dan Zanes feat. Ashley Phillips
13 Whoa, Back, Buck – Dan Zanes feat. Donald Saaf with Isak and Ole
14 Stewball – Dan Zanes feat. Marley Reedy
15 Relax Your Mind – Dan Zanes feat. Neha Jiwrajka