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Leadbelly (Ledbetter, Hudson William)

Leadbelly (Ledbetter, Hudson William)

January 15, 1888
December 6, 1949

The blues singer and guitarist Hudson "Leadbelly" Ledbetter was born and raised near Mooringsport, Louisiana. His birth date is subject to dispute, however (January 21, 1885, and January 29, 1889, are also often given). Leadbelly, as he was known later in life, was still a child when he began to work in the cotton fields of his sharecropper parents. They later bought land across the border in Leigh, Texas, and "Huddie," as he was called, learned to read and write at a local school. During this time he also began to play the windjammer, a Cajun accordion. He also danced and performed music for pay at parties. Ledbetter learned to play the twelve-string guitar, as well as shoot a revolver, in his early teens, and he began to frequent the red-light district of Fannin Street in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he performed for both black and white audiences.

By the time he left home for good in 1906, Ledbetter had a reputation for hard work, womanizing, violence, and musical talent. In 1908 Ledbetter, who had already fathered two children with Margaret Coleman, married Aletta Henderson and settled down in Harrison County, Texas, where he worked on farms and became a song leader in the local Baptist church. Ledbetter also claimed to have attended Bishop College, in Marshall, Texas, during this time. In 1910 Ledbetter and his family moved to Dallas, and Ledbetter began to frequent the Deep Ellum neighborhood, where he began playing professionally with Blind Lemon Jefferson (18971929). The two were inseparable for five years.

In 1915 Ledbetter was jailed and sentenced to a chain gang for possessing a weapon. He escaped, and for several years he lived under the pseudonym Walter Boyd. In 1917 he shot and killed a man in a fight, and the next year he was sentenced to up to thirty years for murder and assault with intent to kill. He served time at the Shaw State Farm Prison, in Huntsville, Texas, from 1918 to 1925. That year, when Governor Pat Neff visited the prison, Leadbelly made up a song on the spot asking to be released and convinced Neff to set him free. By this time Ledbetter was known as "Leadbelly," a corruption of his last name that also referred to his physical toughness. In the late 1920s Leadbelly supported himself by working as a driver and maintenance worker in Houston and around Shreveport. He also continued to perform professionally. In 1930 he was again jailed, this time for attempted homicide in Mooringsport. He had served three years when the ethnomusicologist John Lomax (19152002) came to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to record music by the prisoners. Lomax, impressed by Leadbelly's musicianship, lobbied for his release, which came in 1934. Lomax hired him as a driver and set him on a career as a musician. In 1935 Leadbelly married Martha Promise.

Leadbelly made his first commercial recordings in 1935, performing "C.C. Rider," "Bull Cow," "Roberta Parts I and II," and "New Black Snake Moan." Thereafter, aside from another prison term during 1939 and 1940 for assault, Leadbelly enjoyed enormous success as a professional musician, performing and recording to consistent acclaim. In the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, he appeared at universities and political rallies on both the East and West coasts, as well as on radio and film, and he was a key element and influence in the growth of American folk and blues music. He became a fixture of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village, near his home on New York's Lower East Side, and was often associated with leftwing politics.

Leadbelly was best known for his songs about prison and rural life in the South. However, his repertory was vast and included blues, children's tunes, cowboy and work songs, ballads, religious songs, and popular songs. Although his audiences were generally white (Leadbelly made only a few recordings for the "race" market of African-American record buyers), he addressed matters of race in songs such as "Scottsboro Boys" (1938) and "Bourgeois Blues" (1938). His powerful voice was capable of considerable sensitivity and nuance, and his twelve-string guitar playing was simple, yet vigorous and percussive. Among his most popular and enduring songs, some of which were recorded by Lomax for the Library of Congress, are "Goodnight Irene" (1934), "The Midnight Special" (1934), "Rock Island Line" (1937), "Good Morning Blues" (1940), and "Take This Hammer" (1940). He recorded in 1940 with the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel vocal group. From 1941 to 1943 Leadbelly performed regularly on the U.S. Office of War Information's radio programs, and in 1945 he appeared in Pete Seeger's short documentary film Leadbelly. He made a trip to Paris shortly before his death in New York City at the age of sixty-one from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). The 1976 film Leadbelly was based on his life story. In 1988 Leadbelly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

See also Jefferson, Blind Lemon


Addeo, Edward, and Richard Garvin. The Midnight Special: The Legend of Leadbelly. New York: B. Geis, 1971.

Obrecht, Jas. "Lead Belly: King of the 12-String Blues." Guitar Player 30, no. 8 (August 1996): 55-64.

Snyder, Jared. "Leadbelly and His Windjammer: Examining the African American Button Accordion Tradition." American Music 12, no. 2 (summer 1994): 148-156.

Ward, Geoffrey C. "Leadbelly." American Heritage 44, no. 6 (October 1993): 10-11.

Wolfe, Charles, and Kip Lornell. The Life and Legend of Leadbelly. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

jonathan gill (1996)

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