Lead Belly(originally, Ledbetter, Huddie)

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Lead Belly(originally, Ledbetter, Huddie)

Lead Belly(originally, Ledbetter, Huddie), troubled American folk and blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter; b. near Mooringsport, La., Jan. 20, 1888; d. N.Y., Dec. 6, 1949. (Although initially spelled as two words, for many years, his nickname was spelled as “Leadbelly”; however, recently the original two-word spelling has come back into favor.)

Lead Belly led a tumultuous, often violent life, but he galvanized the folk music community of the 1930s and 1940s with his vibrant performances, and his repertoire of songs (which he collected, adapted, and wrote) proved popular and influential after his death, when such works as “Goodnight, Irene/’ “Rock Island Line,” and “The Midnight Special” became popular with folk, pop, and rock audiences.

Lead Belly was the son of John Wesley Ledbetter, a farmer, and Sallie Pugh Ledbetter, who married Feb. 21, 1888. The day and date of his birth are uncertain. The family moved from Caddo Parish, La., to Harrison County, Tex., still adjacent to Caddo Lake on the eastern border of Tex., when he was five. He showed an early interest in music, learning to play the button accordion (or “windjammer”), and eventually mandolin, guitar, harmonica, Jew’s harp, piano, and organ. His chief instructors were his two uncles, Bob and Terrell Ledbetter. Terrell taught him “Goodnight, Irene,” apparently derived from “Irene, Goodnight” by Gussie Lord Davis, published in 1886, but much altered. Lead Belly would alter it further.

Lead Belly attended grammar school, probably from the ages of eight to 12 or 13, after which he worked as a farmer with his father. He seems to have been given hisfirst guitar about 1903, the same year that he began playing in public. In 1904 he moved to Shreveport, La., where he spent two years playing in the city’s red-light district. After a brief return home, he wandered through Tex. and La., working as a musician, but went home again when he became ill, probably from a venereal disease. He may have attended Bishops Coll. in Marshall, Tex., for a time. On July 20, 1908, he married Aletha Henderson, and they lived on his parents’ farm until late 1910, when they moved to Dallas. They picked cotton during the summer, and Lead Belly worked as a musician in the winter.

Around 1912, Lead Belly met a young Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the two worked together intermittently for several years. Lead Belly and his wife returned to Henderson County in the spring of 1915. He was arrested in June 1915, apparently due to an alleged assault, but his parents signed away their farm to get a lawyer, and when he came to trial in September he was convicted only of carrying a pistol and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. Nevertheless, he escaped, and he and his wife moved to Bowie County, where they became tenant farmers as Mr. and Mrs. Walter Boyd. After an altercation in December 1917, Lead Belly was convicted of murdering his cousin’s husband and assaulting another man with intent to murder, drawing a sentence of seven to 30 years.

Lead Belly’s marriage ended during his incarceration, although he does not seem to have been legally divorced. In 1920 he was transferred to Central State Farm near Houston, a facility known as Sugarland due to its proximity to a sugar refinery. There he became an entertainer in addition to the usual prison work, and he acquired and adapted many of the songs he later performed and recorded, most prominent among them “The Midnight Special,” which referred to a late-night train that passed near the prison. Tex. governor Patrick Neff occasionally visited the prison during 1924, and Lead Belly entertained him, even singing a specially written song in which he pleaded for a pardon. Neff granted the pardon on Jan. 16, 1925, shortly before he left office, shortening Lead Belly’s minimum sentence by several months. After a short time in Houston, he moved back to Mooringsport, where he worked at least part- time as a musician. In February 1930 he was convicted of “assault with intent to murder” in Mooringsport, sentenced to six to ten years, and sent to the state penitentiary in Angola, La.

Folk song collector John A. Lomax, under the auspices of the Library of Congress, made field recordings of Lead Belly at Angola in July 1933. Lomax returned the following year. Lead Belly’s sentence was commuted for good behavior, and he was released on Aug. 1, 1934. He went to Shreveport, where he stayed with Martha Promise, whom he had known before going to prison; they married on Jan. 20, 1935. In September 1934 he went to work for Lomax as his driver and assistant; at one of their stops in Ark. they discovered “Rock Island Line,” a song about a railroad running between Little Rock and Memphis that Lead Belly later adapted (adding a spoken introduction) and recorded.

Lomax took Lead Belly to N.Y. in early 1935; they made personal appearances around the Northeast through March, and Lead Belly made his first commercial recordings for the American Record Corporation (ARC) label (later Columbia Records). Like the other recordings he made, these sold poorly during his lifetime. He and Lomax signed a management contract, though they quickly had a falling-out and Lead Belly returned to the South.

Lead Belly moved to N.Y. in February 1936 and began to perform in public again, often at left-wing political gatherings. He made commercial recordings for Musicraft in April 1939. In May he was convicted of third-degree assault in N.Y. and sentenced to eight months incarceration. In June 1940 he made commercial recordings for RCA Victor. He appeared in N.Y. nightclubs such as the Village Vanguard and performed on radio, notably on the network program Back Where I Come From in September 1940 and on his own show, Folksongs of America, on the local WNYC station in the fall of 1940.

Starting in May 1941, Lead Belly recorded frequently for the small record labels operated by Moses Asch, including Asch, Disc, Stinson, and Folkways. The recordings were made both alone and with such partners as Woody Guthrie and the team of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Between the summer of 1944 and the spring of 1946, Lead Belly lived in L.A., where he recorded for Capitol Records in October 1944 and appeared on local radio station KRE. He returned to N.Y. and continued to perform, notably at concerts sponsored by the left-wing folk music organization People’s Songs. He played in Paris in May 1949, where he was diagnosed as suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a rare and incurable paralytic affliction, which killed him.

In August 1950, “Goodnight, Irene” became the biggest record hit of the year in a version by Gordon Jenkins and His Orch. and the Weavers that sold two million copies. The song also generated Top Ten pop hits for Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford, a chart-topping country version by Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, and a Top Ten country hit for Moon Mullican. In August 1951 the Weavers scored a Top 40 hit with “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” a song they had adapted from Lead Belly’s “If It Wasn’t for Dickey,” and that he had adapted from the Irish folk song “Drimmer’s Cow.” The song became a gold-selling Top Ten hit for Jimmie Rodgers in December 1957. In January 1956 the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group scored a Top Ten hit in the U.K. with “Rock Island Line,” setting off the British skiffle music fad; the recording made the U.S. Top Ten in the spring, and the song was also a Top 40 Country hit for Johnny Cash in February 1970.

”The Midnight Special,” which had been a minor R&B hit for the Tiny Grimes Quintet in November 1948, became a Top 40 pop hit for Paul Evans in January 1960 and for Johnny Rivers in February 1965. “Cotton Fields” (or “Old Cotton Fields at Home”), another song introduced by Lead Belly, became a Top 40 hit for the Highwaymen in December 1961. Leadbelly, a 1976 film biography directed by Gordon Parks and starring Roger E. Mosley, focused on the singer’s life up to 1933.


J. and A. Lomax, eds., Negro Folk Songs ofL. B. (N.Y., 1936); M. Jones and A. McCarthy, eds., A Tribute to Huddie Ledbetter (London, 1946); A. Lomax, L: A Collection of World-Famous Songs (N.Y., 1959); M. Asch and J. Lomax, eds., The L Songbook (N.Y., 1962); P. Seeger and J. Lester, The 12-String Guitar as Played by L.—An Instructional Manual (N.Y, 1965); R. Garvin and E. Addeo, The Midnight Special: The Legend of L. (N.Y, 1971); J. Bell, ed., L. (1976); C. Wolfe and K. Lornell, The Life and Legend ofL. (N.Y, 1992).

—William Ruhlmann

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Lead Belly(originally, Ledbetter, Huddie)

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