Lead Belly

(1889 – 1949)

A singular figure in American music, Lead Belly is often called a Blues singer, but his repertoire ran well beyond Blues, and into a breadth of American Folk styles, from prison work songs and field songs to spirituals and square-dance calls. An itinerant singer who was both a songwriter and a repository for tradional songs, Lead Belly built an extensive repertoire that significantly influenced the Folk revival of the 1960s.

Huddie Ledbetter was born in 1889 (by most estimates) near Shreveport, Louisiana. He was the son of sharecroppers and took an interest in music as a young boy, learning to play the accordion, mandolin, piano, and guitar. He quit school in his early teens and traveled through the southwest working the fields and entertaining at juke joints, dances, and parties. He settled in Dallas, Texas, around 1912 and for a while performed as a duo with the young bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Ledbetter was a large man of short temper and was often in trouble with the law. In 1918 he was sentenced to 30 years in prison after a fight over a woman ended in his opponent’s death. In prison Ledbetter continued to expand his musical range by adapting and updating songs he learned from his fellow inmates and writing new songs with Blues, cowboy, Gospel, and Folk influences. He also entertained prisoners, guards, and occasionally even Texas Governor Pat Neff, who pardoned Lead Belly after he had served seven years. He spent the next few years performing throughout the south and southwest, developing a reputation as the “King of the Twelve String Guitar” for his virtuosity on the instrument.

After a knife fight at a party in 1930 he was sentenced to another prison term, this time at the Angola Farm in Louisiana, which was known for its harsh conditions. At Angola Ledbetter was discovered by father and son folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were traveling the U.S. recording Folk songs for the Library of Congress.  The Lomaxes recorded hundreds of Ledbetter’s songs and with their help Ledbetter was released from Angola in 1934.

Interest in Ledbetter’s life story generated some publicity, including a newsreel that dramatized his “redemption through music” story, a Life magazine profile and many newspaper articles (which often referred to him as “The Singing Convict”). He eventually settled in New York City, where he was jailed again in 1939 after stabbing a man in a fight.  Eventually Ledbetter established himself as a regular in the burgeoning New York City Folk scene of the 1940s, befriending regulars like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.  He recorded prolifically for a variety of different record labels, appeared regularly on radio, and became one of the first American Folk singers to visit Europe when he toured France in 1949.

After his death in December of 1949 from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), Lead Belly’s legacy began to grow as many of the 500-plus songs he wrote or adapted — like “Good Night, Irene,” which was a huge hit for the Weavers the year after Lead Belly died — went on to become Folk classics.  Others, like “Midnight Special,” “Cotton Fields,” and “Rock Island Line,” would be recorded by a diverse list of Rock, Country and Pop artists including Ernest Tubb, Elvis Presley,, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Grateful Dead, and Nirvana.