Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) 1889 – 1949

Born in rural Louisiana, at age 16 he was heading across the Deep South picking up blues, spirituals, reels, cowboy songs, folk ballads and prison hollers. He was eking out a bare existence playing guitar when he could and working as a cotton picker when he had to. While picking cotton Leadbelly would have heard the blacks singing the old slave songs.

A hard drinking man with a hot temper and enormous strength, Leadbelly said, “When I play, the women come around to listen and their men get angry.” Since not everyone agreed with his opinion Huddie frequently found himself obliged to convince them. His convincing frequently landed him in jail.

In 1916 Huddie was in jail in Texas on assault charges when he escaped. He spent the next two years under the alias of Walter Boyd. But then after he killed a man in a fight he was convicted of murder – thirty years of hard labor in Texas’ Shaw State Prison Farm. After seven years he was released after begging pardon from the governor with a song:

“Please, Governor Neff, Be good ‘n’ kind
Have mercy on my great long time…
I don’t see to save my soul
If I don’t get a pardon, try me on a parole…
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I’d wake up in the mornin’ and I’d set you free”

Pat Neff was convinced by the song and by Huddie’s assurances that he’d seen the error of his ways. Huddie left Huntsville a free man. But in 1930 he was arrested, tried, and convicted of attempted homicide. It was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in July 1933 that Huddie met folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan who were touring the south for the Library of Congress collecting unwritten ballads and folk songs using newly available recording technology. The Lomaxes had discovered that Southern prisons were among the best places to collect work songs, ballads, and spirituals but Leadbelly, as he now called himself, was a particular find. Over the next few days the Lomaxes recorded hundreds of songs. When they returned in the summer of 1934 for more recordings Leadbelly told them of his pardon in Texas. As Alan Lomax tells it, “We agreed to make a record of his petition on the other side of one of his favorite ballads, ‘Goodnight Irene’. I took the record to Governor Allen on July 1. On August 1, Leadbelly got his pardon. On September 1, I was sitting in a hotel in Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Leadbelly with his guitar, his knife, and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, “Boss, you got me out of jail and now I’ve come to be your man”.

In 1935 Lomax took Leadbelly North where he became a sensation. And Leadbelly remained Leadbelly. After hearing Cab Calloway sing in Harlem he announced that he could “beat that man singin’ every time”. His inclination toward violent resolution of conflicts, though mellowed, lead to threatening Lomax with a knife which effectively ended their friendship.

During the last 15 years of his life, he found an appreciative new audience in the leftist folk community, befriending the likes of WoodyGuthrie and Pete Seeger. Much like Guthrie, he performed for political rallies and labor unions in his later years. His keening, high-pitched vocals and powerful, percussive guitar playing commanded attention, he became known as “the King of the Twelve-String Guitar.” Lead Belly recorded for a variety of labels, including Folkways, and performed tirelessly, though still subsisting in relative poverty, until his death in 1949 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Ironically, the Weavers sold 2 million copies of their recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” shortly after his death. “It’s one more case of black music being made famous by white people,” Pete Seeger, one of the Weavers, said in 1988, the year of Lead Belly’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It’s a pure tragedy he didn’t live another six months, because all his dreams as a performer would have come true.”

He is renowned for his songs – the best known of which include “Rock Island Line,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “The Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields” – as well as his prowess on the 12-string guitar, second, as a city-dwelling folksinger, performer and recording artist in the urban North. It was, however, not until shortly after Lead Belly’s death that a broader public came to know his songs and the mythic outline of his life.

Exerpts from We had a free concert in our small theatre – OLD SLAVE SONGS. I received calls saying I had to take down the posters – incorrect. After explaining again and again the history, I realized that I was not getting any place. Frustrated, I wrote this article as a hand out trying to explain why the title was correct. How the music developed. There’s CDs of his recordings available for sale. Put them on your must have list!