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Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949) was an American folk and blues musician and multi-instrumentalist, notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the songbook of folk standards he introduced.
He is best known as Lead Belly. Though many releases list him as "Leadbelly", he spelled it "Lead Belly". This is also the usage on his tombstone, as well as of the Lead Belly Foundation. In 1994 the Lead Belly Foundation contacted an authority on the history of popular music, Colin Larkin, editor of the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, to ask if the name "Leadbelly" could be altered to "Lead Belly" in the hope that other authors would follow suit and use the artist's correct appellation.
Although Lead Belly most commonly played the twelve-string, he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and accordion. In some of his recordings, such as in one of his versions of the folk ballad "John Hardy", he performs on the accordion instead of the guitar. In other recordings he just sings while clapping his hands or stomping his foot.
The topics of Lead Belly's music covered a wide range of subjects, including gospel, blues about women, liquor, prison life, and racism; and folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding, and dancing. He also wrote songs concerning the newsmakers of the day, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes.
In 1988 Lead Belly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "Early Influence" category. In 2008, he was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana in January 1888 or 1889. The date is unclear: the 1900 United States Census lists "Hudy William Ledbetter" as 12 years old, with a birth date of January 1888; the 1910 United States Census and the 1930 United States Census also list his birth year as 1888. However, in April 1942, Ledbetter filled out his World War II draft registration with a birth date of January 23, 1889 and a birthplace of Freeport, Louisiana. His grave marker reflects the date listed on his draft registration.
He was the younger of two children to Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter, preceded by a sister named Australia. The pronunciation of "Huddie" is purported to be "HYEW-dee" or "HUGH-dee." However, Ledbetter can be heard pronouncing his name as "HUH-dee" on the track "Boll Weevil," from the Smithsonian Folkways album Lead Belly Sings for Children. His parents, who had cohabited for several years, married on February 26, 1888. When Huddie was five years old, the family settled in Bowie County, Texas.
By 1903, Huddie was already a "musicianer," a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport audiences in St. Paul's Bottoms, a notorious red-light district there. He began to develop his own style of music after exposure to a variety of musical influences on Shreveport's Fannin Street, a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottoms, now referred to as Ledbetter Heights.
The 1910 census of Harrison County, Texas, shows Ledbetter, listed as "Hudy," living next door to his parents with his first wife, Aletha "Lethe" Henderson. Seventeen at the time, she had been 15 when married two years earlier. It was there that Ledbetter received his first instrument, an accordion, from his uncle Terrell. By his early 20s, after fathering at least two children, he left home to find his living as a guitarist and occasional laborer.
Influenced by the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912, he wrote the song "The Titanic", the first composed on the 12-string guitar later to become his signature instrument. Initially played when performing with Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897–1929) in and around Dallas, Texas, the song is about champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson's being denied passage on the Titanic. While Johnson had in fact been denied passage on a ship for being Black, it had not been the Titanic Still, the verse sang: "Jack Johnson tried to get on board. The Captain, he says, 'I ain't haulin' no coal!' Fare thee, Titanic! Fare thee well!" a passage Ledbetter noted he had to leave out when playing in front of white audiences.
Ledbetter's volatile temper sometimes led him into trouble with the law. In 1915, he was convicted of carrying a pistol and sentenced to time on the Harrison County chain gang. He escaped, finding work in nearby Bowie County under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. In January 1918 he was imprisoned at the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit) in Sugar Land, Texas, after killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. It was there he may have first heard the traditional prison song "Midnight Special". In 1925 he was pardoned and released after writing a song to Governor Pat Morris Neff seeking his freedom, having served the minimum seven years of a 7-to-35-year sentence. In combination with good behavior (including entertaining the guards and fellow prisoners), his appeal to Neff's strong religious beliefs proved sufficient. It was quite a testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (at the time the only recourse for prisoners, since in most Southern prisons there was no provision for parole). According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell's book, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (1999), Neff had regularly brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Ledbetter perform.
In 1930 Ledbetter was in Louisiana's Angola Prison Farm after a summary trial for attempted homicide, charged with stabbing a white man in a fight. It was there he was "discovered" three years later during a visit by folklorists John Lomax and his then 18-year-old son Alan Lomax.
Deeply impressed by Ledbetter's vibrant tenor and extensive repertoire, the Lomaxes recorded him on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned with new and better equipment in July of the following year (1934), recording hundreds of his songs. On August 1, Ledbetter was released after having again served almost all of his minimum sentence following a petition the Lomaxes had taken to Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen at his urgent request. It was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, "Goodnight Irene."
A prison official later wrote to John Lomax denying that Ledbetter's singing had anything to do with his release from Angola, state prison records confirming he was eligible for early release due to good behavior. For a time, however, both Ledbetter and the Lomaxes believed that the record they had taken to the governor had hastened his release from Angola.
There are several somewhat conflicting stories about how Ledbetter acquired the famous nickname "Lead Belly", though consensus holds it was probably while in prison. Some say his fellow inmates dubbed him "Lead Belly" as a play on his last name and reference to his physical toughness; it is recounted that during his second prison term, another inmate stabbed him in the neck (leaving him with a fearsome scar that he subsequently covered with a bandana); in defense Ledbetter nearly killed his attacker with his own knife. Others say he earned the name after being shot in the stomach with buckshot. Another theory has it that the name refers to his ability to drink moonshine, home-made liquor which Southern farmers, black and white, used to make to supplement their incomes. Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy thought it came from a supposed tendency to lay about as if "with a stomach weighted down by lead" in the shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working. Or it may be that it is simply a corruption of his surname pronounced with a southern accent. Whatever its origin, he adopted the nickname as a pseudonym while performing, and it stuck.
By the time Lead Belly was released from prison the United States was deep in the Great Depression and jobs were very scarce. In September 1934, in need of regular work in order to avoid having his release canceled, Lead Belly met with John A. Lomax and asked him to take him on as a driver. For three months he assisted the 67-year-old in his folk song collecting abroad the South. (Son Alan was ill and did not accompany his father on this trip.)
In December Lead Belly participated in a "smoker" (group sing) at a Modern Language Association meeting at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where the senior Lomax had a prior lecturing engagement. He was written up in the press as a convict who had sung his way out of prison. On New Year's Day, 1935, the pair arrived in New York City, where Lomax was scheduled to meet with his publisher, Macmillan, about a new collection of folk songs. The newspapers were eager to write about the "singing convict" and Time magazine made one of its first filmed March of Time newsreels about him. Lead Belly attained fame (although not fortune).
The following week, he began recording for the American Record Corporation, but these recordings achieved little commercial success. Of the over 40 sides he recorded for ARC (intended to be released on their Banner, Melotone, Oriole, Perfect, and Romeo labels, and their very short-lived Paramount series), only five sides were actually issued. Part of the reason for the poor sales may have been because ARC insisted on releasing only his blues songs rather than the folk songs for which he would later become better known. In any case, Lead Belly continued to struggle financially. Like many performers, what income he made during his lifetime would come from touring, not from record sales.
In February 1935, he married his girlfriend, Martha Promise, who came north from Louisiana to join him.
The month of February was spent recording his and other African-American repertoire and interviews about his life with Alan Lomax for their forthcoming book, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936). Concert appearances were however slow to materialize. In March 1935 Lead Belly accompanied John Lomax on a previously scheduled two-week lecture tour of colleges and universities in the Northeast, culminating at Harvard.
At the end of the month John Lomax decided he could no longer work with Lead Belly and gave him and Martha money to go back to Louisiana by bus. He gave Martha the money her husband had earned during three months of performing, but in installments, on the pretext Lead Belly would drink it all if given a lump sum. From Louisiana Lead Belly successfully sued Lomax both for the full amount and release from his management contract. The quarrel was very bitter with hard feelings on both sides. Curiously, in the midst of the legal wrangling, Lead Belly wrote to Lomax proposing they team up again. It was not to be. Further, the book about Lead Belly published by the Lomaxes in the fall of the following year proved a commercial failure.
In January 1936, Lead Belly returned to New York on his own without John Lomax in an attempted comeback. He performed twice a day at Harlem's Apollo Theater during the Easter season in a live dramatic recreation of the Time Life newsreel (itself a recreation) about his prison encounter with John A. Lomax, where he had worn stripes, though by this time he was no longer associated with Lomax.
Life magazine ran a three-page article titled, "Lead Belly - Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel," in its April 19, 1937 issue. It included a full-page, color (rare in those days) picture of him sitting on grain sacks playing his guitar and singing. Also, included was a striking picture of Martha Promise (identified in the article as his manager); photos showing Lead Belly's hands playing the guitar (with the caption "these hands once killed a man"); Texas Governor Pat M. Neff; and the "ramshackle" Texas State Penitentiary. The article attributes both of his pardons to his singing of his petitions to the governors, who were so moved that they pardoned him. The article's text ends with "he... may well be on the brink of a new and prosperous period."
Lead Belly failed to stir the enthusiasm of Harlem audiences. Instead, he attained success playing at concerts and benefits for an audience of leftist folk music aficionados. He developed his own style of singing and explaining his repertoire in the context of Southern black culture, taking the hint from his previous participation in John A. Lomax's college lectures. He was especially successful with his repertoire of children's game songs (as a younger man in Louisiana he had sung regularly at children's birthday parties in the black community). He was written up as a heroic figure by the black novelist, Richard Wright, then a member of the Communist Party, in the columns of the Daily Worker, of which Wright was the Harlem editor. The two men became personal friends, though Lead Belly himself was apolitical — if anything he was a supporter of Wendell Willkie, the centrist Republican candidate, for whom he wrote a campaign song.
In 1939, Lead Belly was back in jail for assault, after stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan. Alan Lomax, then 24, took him under his wing and helped raise money for his legal expenses, dropping out of graduate school to do so. After his release (in 1940-41), Lead Belly appeared as a regular on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking CBS radio show, Back Where I Come From, broadcast nationwide. He also appeared in night clubs with Josh White, becoming a fixture in New York City's surging folk music scene and befriending the likes of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger, all fellow performers on Back Where I Come From. During the first half of the decade he recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress, and for Moe Asch (future founder of Folkways Records), and in 1944 headed to California, where he recorded strong sessions for Capitol Records. Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to see success in Europe.
In 1949, Lead Belly had a regular radio broadcast on station WNYC in New York on Sunday nights on Henrietta Yurchenko's show. Later in the year he began his first European tour with a trip to France, but fell ill before its completion, and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. His final concert was at the University of Texas at Austin in a tribute to his former mentor, John A. Lomax, who had died the previous year. Martha also performed at that concert, singing spirituals with her husband.
Lead Belly died later that year in New York City, and was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, 8 miles (13 km) west of Blanchard, in Caddo Parish. He is honored with a statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport.
Lead Belly styled himself "King of the 12-string guitar," and despite his use of other instruments like the accordion, the most enduring image of Lead Belly as a performer is wielding his unusually large Stella twelve-string. This guitar had a slightly longer scale length than a standard guitar, slotted tuners, ladder bracing, and a trapeze-style tailpiece to resist bridge lifting.
Lead Belly played with finger picks much of the time, using a thumb pick to provide a walking bass line and occasionally to strum. This technique, combined with low tunings and heavy strings, gives many of his recordings a piano-like sound. Lead Belly's tuning is debated, but appears to be a downtuned variant of standard tuning; more than likely he tuned his guitar strings relative to one another, so that the actual notes shifted as the strings wore. Lead Belly's playing style was popularized by Pete Seeger, who adopted the twelve-string guitar in the 1950s and released an instructional LP and book using Lead Belly as an exemplar of technique.
In some of the recordings where Lead Belly accompanied himself, he would make an unusual type of grunt between his verses, best described as "Haah!" in many of his songs such as "Looky Looky Yonder," "Take this Hammer," "Linin' Track" and "Julie Ann Johnson" feature this unusual vocalization. In the song, "Take this Hammer," Lead Belly explained, "Every time the men say 'haah,' the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing." The "haah" sound can be heard in the work chants sung by Southern railroad section workers, "gandy dancers," where it was used to coordinate the crews as they laid and maintained the tracks before modern machinery was available.
Lead Belly's work has been widely covered by subsequent musical acts, including Brian Wilson, Delaney Davidson, Tom Russell, Lonnie Donegan, Bryan Ferry ("Goodnight Irene"), The Beach Boys ("Cotton Fields"), Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Midnight Special", "Cotton Fields"), Elvis Presley, Abba, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Ram Jam, The Animals, Jay Farrar, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Davy Graham, Maria Muldaur, Rory Block, Grateful Dead, Gene Autry, Odetta, Billy Childish (who named his son Huddie), Mungo Jerry, Paul King, Led Zeppelin ("Gallows Pole"), Van Morrison, Michelle Shocked, Tom Waits ("Goodnight, Irene"), Scott H. Biram, Ron Sexsmith, British Sea Power, Rod Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ("Black Betty"), The White Stripes ("Boll Weevil"), The Fall, Hole, Smog, Old Crow Medicine Show, Spiderbait, Meat Loaf, Ministry, Raffi, Rasputina, Rory Gallagher, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Deer Tick, Hugh Laurie, X, Bill Frisell, Koerner, Ray & Glover, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana ("Where Did You Sleep Last Night", "They Hung Him On A Cross", "Ain't It A Shame", "Gray Goose"), Meat Puppets, Mark Lanegan, and WZRD ("Where Did You Sleep Last Night"), among many others.
Modern rock audiences likely owe their familiarity with Lead Belly to Nirvana's performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on the televised concert later released as MTV Unplugged in New York. Singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain refers to his attempt to convince David Geffen to purchase Lead Belly's guitar for him in an interval before the song is played (connecting the song with Lead Belly in a way that is more tangible than the liner notes where Lead Belly appears on other albums), and partly due to the fact that it sold nearly 7 million copies. In his notebooks, Cobain listed Lead Belly's "Last Session Vol. 1" as one of the 50 albums most influential to the formation of Nirvana's sound.
The Library of Congress recordings, done by John and Alan Lomax from 1934 to 1943, were released in a six volume series by Rounder Records in the early-to-mid-1990s:
The Folkways recordings, done for Moses Asch from 1941 to 1947, were released in a three volume series by Smithsonian Folkways in the late 1990s:
Smithsonian Folkways have also released a number of other collections of his recordings for the label: