Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, was a matchless figure in American music of the 20th century. Ultimately, he was best remembered for a repertoire of songs that he discovered, learned, or wrote, including “Goodnight, Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” “The Midnight Special,” and “Cotton Fields.” His legacy is a early example of a folksinger whose background educated him about the oral tradition by which folk music was handed down, a tradition that, years later included elements of popular music. He became a major influence on folk performers of the 1940s such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who in turn influenced the folk revival and eventually the early development of rock & roll music from the 1960s. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 along with The Beatles, Berry Gordy, Bob Dylan and The Supremes.
Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana on January 20th, 1889. The actual date is unclear because 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.
He had shown an early interest in music, learning the button accordion as a child and playing for his parents church. He eventually picked up his first guitar in 1903
He met a young street musician name Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897–1929). The two friends later to become blues legends teamed up to play around the Dallas area catching trains wherever they could to the next destination. 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 in and around Dallas, Texas, the song is about champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson’s being denied passage on the Titanic.
In 1915, Ledbetter was convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. He escaped and moved to Bowie County, TX, where he lived under the name Walter Boyd and returned to performing while also working as a sharecropper.
Lead Belly returned to Louisiana and became a stable musician on the local music scene. In January 1930, he was involved in a stabbing incident that led to a charge of “assault with intent to murder a white man.” He was convicted, given a sentence of six to ten years, and sent to Angola Prison Farm. Three years later folklorist John Lomax and his 18 year old son Alan Lomax met Lead Belly while recording American folks songs on a portable aluminum disc for the Library of Congress.
While serving time at the Imperial farm in Sugar land, Texas he 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.
John and Alan Lomax returned to Angola in the summer of 1934, and recorded another session with Lead Belly. A few of these recordings were released commercially by Elektra Records in 1966 in a box set called The Library of Congress Recordings and were reissued in 1991 by Rounder Records on a CD called Midnight Special. The session also included “Governor O.K. Allen,” a song Lead Belly had written to encourage the governor to sign his petition of release.
After Lead Belly’s 1935 pardon he worked with the Lomax’s to help collect hundreds of folk songs across Southern prisons. In 1936 John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter went their separate ways with both men pioneering both the recording and performing of American folk history . Ledbetter obtained legal representation and sought more money from Lomax, eventually the two worked out a settlement that allowed Lomax to use Lead Belly’s songs in his book Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, published in 1936. In February 1936, Lead Belly moved to New York City with his wife Martha Promise and quickly build a career as a performer in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan.
Lead Belly was very busy in 1940, appearing on the network radio series Folk Music of America and Back Where I Come From and launching his own weekly 15-minute program on local WNYC, a show that ran for a year. He also undertook his third set of commercial recordings in June, this time for RCA Victor and accompanied on some tracks by the Golden Gate Quartet. These sessions resulted in an album called The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs, released on RCA’s Bluebird imprint. In August 1940, Lead Belly also returned to recording for the Library of Congress, and some of these tracks are on the Rounder albums Gwine Dig A Hole And Put The Devil In It
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.
Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to see success in Europe.
His final concert was at the University of Texas 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.
On December 6, 1949 Ledbetter died in New York City, and was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport. He is honored with a life-size statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport.
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.
Candy distributor David Klein created Jelly Belly jelly beans inspired by the name Lead Belly