Jun 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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LeadBelly1885-1949  Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, played a pivotal role in the development of modern music. Interpreting songs and stories from the South, he exerted a powerful influence on musicologists and folk musicians, influencing popular music’s evolution.

Music and Violence

Leadbelly was born to sharecroppers on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1885. At the age of five, his father bought land in Texas and moved the family. Leadbelly received early lessons on the accordion and later on the guitar from family members. He was in school from age eight through approximately age 13, when he began working on the farm full time. He owned his own guitar at an early age which he would play at local dances, and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana when he was roughly 16 to make his way performing. He left two years later, and spent the subsequent two years wandering through Texas and Louisiana, working a variety of trades while listening and playing. An illness forced him home at about age 20, where he married and spent years farming.

Leadbelly and his wife moved to Dallas in 1910. In about 1912, he met the young Blind Lemmon Jefferson, then a street musician. The two played together for the next few years, during which time Leadbelly took up the 12-string guitar. Returning home in 1915, he was arrested after a violent altercation, and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. He escaped and spent two years in Bowie County, Texas under an assumed name. However, in 1917 he was arrested and convicted of the murder of the husband of his cousin, and of “assault to murder” another man. Sentenced to seven to 30 years, Leadbelly used this time to learn songs from fellow inmates, and earned his nickname for his tough physical condition. Governor Pat Neff heard him play on a prison tour, at which time Leadbelly sang a specially written “pardon song.” Neff did pardon Leadbelly in 1925, only five months short of his minimum sentence.

After short periods in Houston and back home, Leadbelly settled in Mooringsport. By this time, his marriage was over. In 1930, he was involved in a stabbing altercation, and sentenced to six to 10 years for “assault with intent to murder” in Angola Prison.

Discovered in Prison

There, Leadbelly met two folk musicologists in 1933, John Lomax and his son Alan. The Lomaxes were traveling throughout the South and its prisons, seeking music to record for the Library of Congress. Lomax recorded an initial session with Leadbelly of hundreds of songs (Leadbelly claimed to know 500), which included an early version of a song he’d learned from an uncle called “Irene.” In 1934, the Lomaxes returned to Angola and recorded a second session, including “Midnight Special” and a song in support of Leadbelly’s petition for early release under a good behavior program. The Lomaxes delivered a copy to the state Governor, who granted Leadbelly’s petition. Although the state denied any connection, Leadbelly would promote the idea that he’d sung his way out of prison twice.

Released in 1934 into difficult Depression conditions, he offered his services to Lomax as assistant on prison trips, where he expanded his repertoire with songs from other inmates such as “Rock Island Line.” Lomax brought Leadbelly to New York at the end of 1934. He was a sensation, performing at colleges for musicologists and society functions for white admirers, while the press trumpeted his violent past. Lomax became his manager, and facilitated a recording deal with the American Record Corporation. During this period, Lomax began work on a book, Negro Folk Songs as sung by Lead Belly, and helped the artist make additional recordings for the Library of Congress. Leadbelly sent for and married Martha Promise, whom he’d met after his release from Angola.

In 1935, Lomax tired of Leadbelly’s unreliable behavior and terminated the relationship. Leadbelly retreated to Louisiana and sued for additional money. A settlement enabled Lomax to publish his book in 1936, but the working relationship was over. That year, Leadbelly returned to New York. With help from the younger Alan Lomax, he recorded again for the Library of Congress between 1937 and 1939, during which period he found a new base of support with the folk/political left-wing. Such artists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Burl Ives, and Brownie McGee had congregated in New York; Leadbelly’s apartment became a gathering place for jam sessions.

After another stabbing in 1939, Leadbelly made a second commercial recording to pay legal bills, but served eight months for assault. Released in 1940, he plunged into activity, including his own weekly radio show on WNYC, a third commercial record set for RCA Victor, and more for the Library of Congress. The recording pace continued in 1941 with the new Asch Records, whose founder would go on to create Folkways Records. A two-year period on the West Coast led to three sessions for Capital Records beginning in 1944. Returning to New York in 1946, he continued to record for Folkways, appeared live, and found welcoming audiences at jazz clubs as that form became popular, but he began experiencing numbness in his legs. On a 1949 tour of France, he was diagnosed with Lou Gerhig’s Disease. Upon his return home, he managed several final performances, but died at the end of that year.

Leadbelly’s legacy became instantly apparent. Within six months, the Weavers sold over one million copies of “Goodnight, Irene,” followed by “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” based on another Leadbelly song. The Highwaymen scored with his “Old Cotton Fields at Home.” Other adaptations came from Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, and later the Beachboys and Creedence Clearwater Revival. A version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” inspired a fad in Britain that influenced the Beatles. Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” and Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” pay homage to a remarkable man and career, whose recordings have remained in perpeutal re-release.


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