Earlier this week, we had the good fortune of revisiting this remarkable Huddie Ledbetter 10″ LP from the Capitol Records “Classics in Jazz” series, Southern Folklife Collection call number FC14651. Issued in 1953, almost four years after Lead Belly’s death, the album is remarkable not only because of the striking portrait of Ledbetter and his famous 12-string guitar, but also because of Ledbetter’s accompaniment on the recordings. In the liner notes, Paul Mason Howard is credited with playing the zither on “these historic performances.” The interplay of zither with Ledbetter’s booming 12 string is highly enjoyable and these recordings (made in California in 1944) showcase Ledbetter in top form. Listen to the intro to “Back Water Blues” from side 2:
Mr. Howard, a pianist and composer who worked in vaudeville and collaborated with Tin Man and Beverly Hillbilly, Buddy Ebsen, before working extensively as a songwriter for the Walt Disney Company, is actually playing the Dolceola. Mr. Howard supplemented his songwriting career performing on hybrid string instruments like the Dolceola and Cithare. These recordings of Lead Belly and Howard are likely the first commercial recordings of the Dolceola. The solo on the duo’s recording of “Ella Speed” highlights the unique tone of the Dolceola:
It was once thought that legendary Texas gospel singer Washington Phillips performed on the Dolceola, but his instruments were later confirmed to be two Celestaphones, More on Phillips and the Celestaphone another time, but for now we leave you with the final track from the LP, Lead Belly’s arrangement of the classic cowboy tune “Western Plain”. To recap, this is a recording of a performer identified as a blues musician, playing a cowboy song, released on a jazz record…. as another classic cowboy song says “Don’t fence me in.” Come a cow-cow yicky. come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.
* the album title is “Leadbelly,” however, Mr. Ledbetter himself spelled his name as two words, “Lead Belly”