Lead Belly Biography

Huddie William Ledbetter, 20 January 1889, Jeder Plantation, Mooringsport, Louisiana, USA, d. 6 December 1949, New York City, New York, USA. Lead Belly’s music offers an incredible vista of American traditions, white as well as black, through his enormous repertoire of songs and tunes. He learned many of them in his youth when he lived and worked in western Louisiana and eastern Texas, but to them he added material from many different sources, including his own compositions, throughout the rest of his life. He played several instruments, including mandolin, accordion, piano and harmonica, but was best known for his mastery of the 12-string guitar. In his early 20s, he met and played with Blind Lemon Jefferson, but the encounter was to leave little if any lasting impression on his music. His sound remained distinctive and individual, with his powerful, yet deeply expressive, vocals and his 12-string guitar lines, which could be booming and blindingly fast or slow and delicate as appropriate.

Lead Belly’s style and approach to music developed as he played the red-light districts of towns such as Shreveport and Dallas - a tough, often violent background that was reflected in songs like ‘Fannin Street’ and ‘Mr Tom Hughes’ Town’. Although he built up a substantial local reputation for his music as a young man, he served a number of prison sentences, including two stretches of hard labour for murder and attempted murder, respectively. While serving the last of these sentences at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, he was discovered by the folklorist John A. Lomax, then travelling throughout the south with his son Alan, recording traditional songs and music - frequently in prisons - for the Folk Song Archive of the Library of Congress. On his release (which he claimed was due to his having composed a song pleading with the governor to set him free), Lead Belly worked for Lomax as a chauffeur, assistant and guide, also recording prolifically for the Archive. His complete Library of Congress recordings, made over a period of several years, were issued in 1990 on 12 albums. Through Lomax, he was given the opportunity of a new life, as he moved to New York to continue to work for the folklorist. He also embarked on a reborn musical career with a new and very different audience, playing university concerts, clubs and political events, appearing on radio and even on film.

Lead Belly also made many records, mainly aimed at folk music enthusiasts. However, he did have the chance to make some ‘race’ recordings which were marketed to the black listener, but these enjoyed little commercial success, probably because Lead Belly’s music would have seemed somewhat old-fashioned and rural to the increasingly sophisticated black record buyer of the 30s; although 50 songs were recorded, only six were issued. The New York folk scene, however, kept him active to some extent, and he played and recorded with artists such as Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. There was also a series of recordings in which he was accompanied by the voices of the Golden Gate Quartet, although this was an odd pairing and seemed rather contrived. Newly composed songs, such as ‘New York City’ and the pointed ‘Bourgeois Blues’, which described the racial prejudice he encountered in Washington DC, show how his perspectives were being altered by his new circumstances.

It was Lead Belly’s apparently inexhaustible collection of older songs and tunes, however, that most fascinated the northern audience, embracing as it did everything from versions of old European ballads (‘Gallis Pole’), through Cajun-influenced dance tunes (‘Sukey Jump’) and sentimental pop (‘Daddy, I’m Coming Home’), to dozens of black work songs and field hollers (‘Whoa Back Buck’), southern ballads (‘John Hardy’), gospel (‘Mary Don’t You Weep’), prison songs (‘Shorty George’), many tough blues (‘Pigmeat Papa’) and even cowboy songs (‘Out On The Western Plains’). His best-known and most frequently covered songs are probably the gentle C&W-influenced ‘Goodnight Irene’, later to be a hit record for the Weavers (one of whose members was Pete Seeger, who was also to write an instruction book on Lead Belly’s unique 12-string guitar style) and ‘Rock Island Line’, which was a hit for Lonnie Donegan in the UK a few years later. His classic ‘Cottonfields’ was a success for the Beach Boys. In 1949, he travelled to Europe, appearing at jazz events in Paris, but the promise of wider appreciation of the man and his music was sadly curtailed when he died later that same year.

Note: In keeping with the Lead Belly Society in the USA and the request of his family we have adopted the correct spelling, and not the more commonly used and incorrect Leadbelly.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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