Lead Belly, a folk pioneer without peer

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Huddie Ledbetter


Songwriter, vocalist, 12-string guitar virtuoso

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was one of the most powerful figures in the early years of the American folkmusic movement. He wasn't tall or muscular, but his steel-wire energy as a "cotton-chopper" gave him the nickname he bore most of his life. His performances radiated an overwhelming intensity that few artists have ever matched. His recordings were instrumental in the creation of Britain's Skiffle movement, which produced the Beatles and many of the other rhythm and blues artists.

He was born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jeder Plantation, a farm in Mooringsport, Louisiana. His birth date has been variously listed as January 20, 1889, January 21, 1885, or January 29, 1885. During his early years, his family appears lived in a number of locations in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. As a young man, Huddie Ledbetter mastered the 12 string guitar, which sounded in his hands like a small orchestra. He became known as "King of the 12 String Guitar", and formed a duo with the legendary blues musician Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Leadbelly once said, "When I play, the women come around to listen and their men get angry." In 1918, he fought and killed a man in Dallas and was sentenced to thirty years to be served in the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. In 1925, he wrote a song asking Governor Pat Neff for a pardon. Neff, who had promised at his election never to pardon a prisoner, broke his promise and set Huddie Ledbetter free.

Back on the road with many new songs he had learned or written at Huntsville, Huddie again found enthusiastic audiences throughout the south. But, as the center of admiring crowds, he was again the target of envy and jealousy. In 1930, after a fight, he was sentenced to a prison term in Louisiana. In a way, this was a stroke of luck, because he was discovered by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress.

Lead Belly, with his particularly rich store of folkmusic and his brilliance as a performer, was probably the Lomax's greatest discovery. They made a recording of his theme song "Good Night Irene", and on the other side of the disc Lead Belly sang a new ballad asking Louisiana's Governor Oscar Allen for a pardon. By August 1st, Lead Belly was a free man.

The Lomaxes brought him to New York, where he delighted audiences who were astonished by the raw power of "down home" music. He kept recording songs for the Library of Congress, but began to record for commercial record labels, especially Folkways Records, under the direction of Moe Asch. When Asch died, Folkways was taken over by the Smithsonian Institution, which has been releasing Lead Belly's old recordings to a new audience for whom these early songs are forerunners of rock and roll.

Before World War II, he found a devoted following among folkmusic fans and college students, and was given his own program on New York's radio station WNYC. He joined briefly with Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry to found a group called the Headline Singers. But, toward the end of the 1940s, it was discovered that he had lateral sclerosis ("Lou Gehrig's Disease"), and he died in New York City on December 6, 1949.

His powerful songs have become generally popular throughout the world, and "Good Night, Irene" was a major commercial hit as sung by the Weavers. Some of the other songs Lead Belly recorded have become standards, including "Rock Island Line", "Midnight Special", "Where Did You Sleep Last Night (In The Pines)", "Bring Me A Little Water, Silvy", "Pick A Bale Of Cotton", "Cottonfields", etc. His songs are included in books and folios, and most are published by The Richmond Organization, with whom he's been associated since the early 1940s.

Seminal works covered by Dylan, Beach Boys, Sinatra and Grateful dead among dozens of others