I admired Lead Belly’s music more than I actually listened to it, which is why the few guitar arrangements I play of his come from Pete Seeger and Julius Lester’s book, The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly. But the big exception to that rule was Leadbelly’s Last Sessions, Part Two. I liked that album so much that I can’t imagine why I never got Parts one, three, or four… but that’s how it was. I was particularly taken by the odder tracks — odd, that is, for those of us who thought of Lead Belly as an old-time folk-blues singer: my favorite was “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” (Cause the Girl in My Arms Isn’t You), and old pop waltz that he played magnificently, but I also liked the Hawaiian song (“It was silent on the island of Hawai’i…”), and the Pig Latin song, not to mention “Silver City Bound,” and “New Iberia,” and “Relax Your Mind.”
Honestly, I don’t know how much attention I would have paid to “Relax Your Mind” if I hadn’t had tablature for it, but I did, and it’s a pretty wonderful object. Frederic Ramsey, who recorded the Last Sessions, reported that Lead Belly wrote it at the behest of the National Automobile Safety Council, but they declined to used it, which, if true, just demonstrates a typical bureaucratic lack of imagination.
I like to think of this song as “Zen and the Art of Driving.” As Lead Belly said:
“A lot of people don’t know to relax — cause I used to didn’t relax, myself…. I made this song just on account of the people driving cars. You can’t drive a car and look all across the road. You got to look down the road, the way you going. Cause that’s caused so much trouble now. So many people lost, that’s true. Not relaxing.”