Singer, songwriter, guitarist
The legendary “King of the Twelve-String Guitar,” Huddie Ledbetter—known as “Leadbelly”—was one of the most famous and influential American folk artists of the twentieth-century. Many of his songs—including such classics as “Good Night, Irene,” “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line,” “Old Cottonfields at Home,” “Gray Goose,” and “Take This Hammer“—are standards of American folk music that have been performed and recorded by countless artists. A talented musician with a commanding stage presence and voice, Leadbelly captivated audiences in the 1930s and 1940s with his powerful songs, many of them rooted in his brutal experiences as a black man in the Deep South. Folk archivist Alan Lomax, who together with his father John introduced Leadbelly in the 1930s, was quoted by Ray M. Lawless in Folksingers and Folksongs in America as saying, “[Leadbelly’s] steel voice, his steel arm on the twelve strings and his high-voltage personality captured audiences everywhere. More than any other singer, he demonstrated to a streamlined, city-oriented world that America had living folkmusic—swamp, primitive, angry, freighted with great sorrow and great joy.”
The achievement of Leadbelly is remarkable, considering the turbulence of his personal life. He is perhaps as famous for his often violent temperament, over-indulgences in alcohol, numerous liaisons with women, bouts with the law, and prison terms, as he is for his music. A contributor to Rolling Stone wrote, “The legend of Leadbelly is by now inextricable from the man’s life.” He was born in the Deep South, and it was there that his musical talent was shaped. From his family he learned spirituals, work songs, and lullabies, and by the time he was ten, he could play an accordion given to him by an uncle. His father gave him his first guitar, and when he was sixteen, Leadbelly left his native Louisiana for a life of roaming, music, and working at various jobs. For the next few years he was exposed to various types of music and amassed a variety of songs—blues, jazz, cowboy songs, work songs—all the while frequenting brothels, getting in violent and bloody scrapes, and landing himself in prison. Leadbelly was, as Lawless comments, “a strange, enigmatic personality,” and his life was also a testament to the conditions of the turn-of-the-century American South, where oppression and hostile treatment of blacks remained little changed from the days of the Civil War.
The experience of prison fed into Leadbelly’s music, and his music twice helped him out of prison. In 1925, the governor of Texas commuted a thirty-year murder sentence for Leadbelly, after Leadbelly improvised a song on his own behalf for the governor. The lyrics, as George T. Simon reported in Best of the Music Makers, went: ‘I’se your servant compose this song. / Please
Born Huddie Ledbetter, January 21, 1885 (some sources say 1888), in the Caddo Lake district near Mooringsport, LA; died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), December 6, 1949, in New York, NY; father was a farmer; married Martha Promise, January 21, 1935.
Traveling musician in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, early 1910s; chauffeur and bodyguard with folklorists John and Alan Lomax, throughout the South, late 1934; concert performer, New York City, 1935-49; toured Europe, 1949; appeared on CBS-Radio show, Back Where I Come From.
A film, Leadbelly, loosely based on Ledbetter’s life, was released by Paramount Pictures in 1976.
Gov’nor Neff lemme go back home./Please Honorable Gov’nor be good an’ kind,/If you don’ get a pardon, will you cut my time?” In 1930 Leadbelly was again sentenced to prison, this time in Louisiana for attempted murder. His music had, however, come to the attention of folklore archivist John Lomax, who obtained permission to record Leadbelly’s songs for the Library of Congress Archives. Leadbelly’s second term was commuted after he served three years, and he worked as chauffeur and bodyguard to John and Alan Lomax as they toured the South in search of folk material.
Leadbelly arrived with the Lomaxes in New York City in late 1934, and they arranged a series of concert appearances at northeastern colleges. Leadbelly was a hit with audiences and critics alike, and during the 1930s and 1940s, played to acclaim in New York City and throughout the rest of the United States. Frequently he performed with other folk giants of the day, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy. Lawless described Leadbelly’s spell with audiences: “Leadbelly was… a vigorous and compelling personality. Furthermore, he was a superb storyteller. It was his habit to introduce a song with a preliminary spoken story, so that the listener was in the mood when the song came. Thus, as the Lomaxes have pointed out, he was a true folk artist, transmuting the materials he found into something different, often something strange and beautiful, into a new song.”
Leadbelly received praise in Europe also, and in the fall of 1949, he traveled there for a series of concerts. While on tour, he came down with symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease—the muscle-atrophying disease that would eventually kill him—and had to return to New York City. He died there on December 6, 1949, at the height of his musical career. Ironically, Pete Seeger and his group The Weavers had a huge hit with Leadbelly’s “Good Night, Irene” shortly after his death. Seeger commented in Rolling Stone on the spirit of Leadbelly: “Some black people bad-mouthed him: ‘Only white folks like us to sing like that.’ But his power was such that if he ever got a chance, he changed their minds, because he sang some of the greatest protest songs of all time. He had the heart of a champion. I mean, when he went out onstage, he wanted to conquer that audience. And he did.”
During his lifetime, Leadbelly made numerous recordings, including those for the Library of Congress, 1934, American Record Corp., New York City, 1935, RCA Victor, June, 1940, and Capitol Records.
Leadbelly Sings, Folkways, 1962.
Ledbetter’s Best, Capitol, 1963.
Midnight Special, RCA Victrola, 1964.
Good Night Irene, Allegro, 1964.
Play-Party Songs, Stinson.
Leadbelly Legacy, Folkways.
Last Session, Folkways.
Take This Hammer, Verve/Folkways, 1965.
Leadbelly, Archive of Folk Song, 1966.
Hands Off Her, Verve/Folkways, 1966.
From the Last Sessions, Verve/Folkways, 1967.
Legend, Tradition, 1970.
Leadbelly, Columbia, 1970.
Shout On, Folkways.
Baggelaar, Kristin, and Donald Mitton, Folk Music: More Than a Song, Thomas J. Crowell, 1976.
The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1983.
Lawless, Ray M., Folksingers and Folksongs in America, 2nd edition, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1965.
Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax, editors, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly (includes commentary by Leadbelly), Mac-millan, 1936.
Simon, George T., Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
New York Times, December 7, 1949.
Rolling Stone, February 11, 1988.
Time, December 19, 1949.
—Michael E. Mueller
Leadbelly (1885-1949) was an accomplished 12-string guitar player from the Texas-Louisiana border. During his violence-torn life, Leadbelly served four prison terms for assault. At one of his performances in prison, he was discovered by John Lomax, a Harvard-trained musicologist. Lomax introduced Leadbelly to American audiences of the 1930s and 1940s through his contacts and writings. Although Leadbelly never sold many records during his lifetime, he strongly influenced several generations of folk musicians.
Huddie William Ledbetter was born on Jeter Plantation in Mooringsport, Louisiana. His date of birth has been variously given as January 29, 1885, and January 21, 1888. As an only child, he enjoyed the doting affection of his parents, Wes and Sally Ledbetter. The Ledbetters were fairly well-to-do Southern blacks, having risen from sharecroppers in Louisiana to landowners on the Texas-Louisiana border. Leadbelly's mother, born Sally Pugho, was reportedly half Indian.
Leadbelly's uncle, Terrel Ledbetter, taught his nephew to play accordion and later guitar. Leadbelly was soon playing at local parties—as well as on Shreveport's Fannin Street, a notorious red-light district, despite his mother's protests.
Leadbelly caused a scandal when he fathered a child at the age of 15 and a second child at 16. In reaction to the community's outrage, he set out on his own, supporting himself as a wandering minstrel and farm laborer. At one point, however, he became extremely sick and returned home to Mooringsport. It was during this period that he met his first wife, Lethe.
Leadbelly later claimed to have wandered around Dallas with blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson about this time. Jefferson, who went on to sell a million records during the 1920s, had a profound influence on Leadbelly, who would later acknowledge his debt to the younger musician in a song entitled "(My Friend) Blind Lemon."
Jailed for Assault
By 1917, when Leadbelly was jailed for assault, the two musicians had gone their separate ways. Although Lead-belly's parents sold their land to pay for his legal defense, Leadbelly was sentenced to short-term hard labor. He escaped from the penitentiary by outrunning the prison dogs. After seeking refuge at his parents' farm, he was sent by his father to New Orleans. But he disliked that city and moved on to De Kalb, Texas, in the northeastern part of the state near Arkansas. Hoping to avoid recapture, he supported himself as a farm laborer while relatives helped him.
During this period, Leadbelly played little music to avoid drawing attention to himself. He also adopted the alias Walter Boyd. He and Lethe were no longer together, and Leadbelly found other women to keep him company.
Convicted of Murder
As Walter Boyd, Leadbelly became known for the company he kept with women and for frequent fights. While traveling with friends and a relative named Will Stafford, Leadbelly got into a fight in which Stafford was fatally shot. Though Leadbelly maintained his innocence, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years of hard labor on Shaw State Farm in Texas.
Still using the name Boyd, Leadbelly served seven years of his 30-year sentence working on chain gangs. After a prison escape failed, he tried to drown himself in a lake but was apprehended. Back in prison, he used his musical talents to gain favor with the prison guards.
While Leadbelly was serving time at Shaw State Farm, his father died. Just before his death, Wes Ledbetter had tried to bribe prison officials into releasing Leadbelly. But in 1925, Leadbelly won a full pardon on his own. Oddly, the pardon came after the governor of Texas went on record as opposing pardons. The governor had visited the prison several times to hear Leadbelly sing, and Leadbelly later maintained that he won over the governor with his song "Please Pardon Me."
Following his release from prison, Leadbelly returned home to Mooringsport. While supporting himself as a truck driver, he kept himself in liquor and women by using his musical talents. By this time, Blind Lemon Jefferson's records were selling well and country blues was at the peak of its popularity. But record scouts took no notice of Leadbelly.
Another Prison Sentence
One night while performing a song titled "Mister Tom Hughes's Town," Leadbelly became involved in a brawl that left him with a horrendous scar on his neck and left the other man with permanent brain injuries. Other fights would follow, leading Leadbelly into further conflicts with the law. After a fight in which he claimed that six men tried to steal whiskey from his lunch pail, Leadbelly was convicted of assault with intent to commit murder. Court records, however, show that he was convicted of assaulting a white Salvation Army officer with a knife at a Salvation Army concert after the officer told Leadbelly to stop dancing to the music.
In 1930, Leadbelly was sentenced to ten years at the Louisiana state prison in Angola. After the authorities discovered Leadbelly's prior conviction, he was disqualified from any chance at early release. Life in Depression-era Southern prisons was not easy, and Leadbelly received beatings for minor offenses. But he adapted to the conditions at Angola and eventually was allowed to work as a laundry man and waiter. During this prison term, he acquired the habit of sleeping with the lights on.
In 1933, a Harvard-trained expert on American folk music, John Lomax, was making his way through Southern prisons and recording musicians when he stopped at Angola and heard Leadbelly sing. Lomax made some preliminary recordings of Leadbelly's songs and returned months later with better recording equipment. Leadbelly recorded his "Please Pardon Me" song (now addressed to the governor of Louisiana) and "Goodnight Irene." Although Leadbelly later maintained that he was pardoned because the Louisiana governor had been moved by his prison song, records indicate that he was released as a cost-saving measure.
When Leadbelly was released from Angola in 1934, jobs were scarce, especially for ex-convicts. But Lomax hired him as a recording assistant and took him to New York, where Lomax was well connected with musicologists.
Sensation in New York
Leadbelly arrived in New York on December 31, 1934, and quickly created a sensation with his physical scars and prison background. His musical tradition on the 12-string guitar went back decades to roots unfamiliar in New York. He was asked to perform at elite universities, where he frightened as much as entertained his audiences.
Lomax negotiated a contract with Macmillan to write a book entitled Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly that would include Leadbelly's life history, an account of his discovery by Lomax, and background details about Lead-belly's songs.
Leadbelly moved into a house in Connecticut owned by a socialite to give himself some breathing room from the publicity seekers in New York and to work with Lomax on the book. Meanwhile, the guitar player sent to Louisiana for his latest companion, Martha Promise. They were married in Wilton, Connecticut, in a highly publicized ceremony.
While in Connecticut, Leadbelly recorded songs for the Library of Congress archives. Lomax also made arrangements for Leadbelly to record under the label of the American Record Company. Although American released some of Leadbelly's recordings commercially, they sold poorly, the peak market for rural blues having passed some ten years earlier. But part of the problem was that the company insisted Leadbelly record blues rather than folk songs, even though most of his repertoire was folk music. As a result, Leadbelly never did sell many records while he was alive, even though there was a large interest among white audiences in his folk music.
Relationship with Lomax Soured
Although the relationship between Lomax and Lead-belly was at first mutually satisfactory, it gradually deteriorated. As long as Leadbelly stayed out of trouble and performed for Lomax's audiences, things went well enough. With Lomax contracted to handle Leadbelly's finances, the folk singer was totally dependent on income from Lomax, and Lomax kept Leadbelly on a tight leash to prevent him from getting into trouble. Leadbelly increasingly resented Lomax as he discovered New York's black nightlife.
Leadbelly's violent past and emotional turbulence gave Lomax more than enough reason to be a little afraid of his discovery. Some minor disagreements and Leadbelly's failure to meet commitments led to their parting in March 1935.
Leadbelly returned to Louisiana, while Lomax moved to Texas to work on his book, which was behind schedule. Destitute, Leadbelly hired a lawyer to obtain money from Lomax. A settlement was reached in which Lomax was allowed to complete the book, and it was published in November 1936.
Darling of the Left
In March 1936, a year after he left New York, Leadbelly was back with his wife Martha. Without Lomax, Leadbelly initially floundered, but after he met lecturer Mary Barnicle of New York University, he got an introduction to left-wing political factions within New York society, which had taken a strong interest in Leadbelly's folk music.
Surviving on welfare and odd jobs, Leadbelly and his wife struggled to make ends meet. Lomax's book was not selling well. Jazz and swing now dominated popular tastes. The American folk music following and Leadbelly's audiences were largely confined to members of the political Left.
To attract a wider audience, Leadbelly added topical and protest songs about segregation to his repertoire. He also made some non-commercial recordings, a number of which ended up in the archives of East Tennessee State University.
In 1939, Leadbelly was arrested for assaulting a man with a knife. He reportedly stabbed the man sixteen times. Convicted of third-degree assault, Leadbelly was sentenced to less than a year in prison. During the trial, Leadbelly made his first commercial recordings since 1935 for Musicraft, a small company with left-wing political affiliations. He received a small advance on royalties for his efforts.
The fifty-one-year-old Leadbelly began serving his fourth prison sentence in 1939. By 1940, after serving eight months, he was released and back in New York City. About this time a folk music community was springing up in New York City which would achieve tremendous growth during and after World War II.
A Living—and a Dying
Leadbelly befriended the then-unknown Woody Guthrie and invited him to move into the apartment he was sharing with his wife. Leadbelly's apartment soon became a gathering place for folk singers and the scene of all-night jam sessions. Leadbelly meanwhile made radio appearances and recorded for RCA and the Library of Congress. He also made a recording for Moe Asch's Folkway Records, which would become his principle record label.
In 1944, Leadbelly headed west to Hollywood in hopes of getting work in the studios. Although he was unable to land work in movies, he made a decent living playing club circuits. He recorded for Capitol records, which used the best recording technology that he had so far encountered. But by late 1946, he had had enough of the West Coast and returned to New York.
With the revival of Dixieland jazz and renewed interest in "origins" music, Leadbelly found his music increasingly in vogue. In 1946 a book entitled A Tribute of Huddie Ledbetter was published in England. Leadbelly was able to make a modest living playing in jazz clubs and giving occasional concerts. In 1949, while briefly touring in France, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He died in New York City six months later, on December 6, 1949. He is buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church graveyard near Mooringsport, Louisiana.
"Huddie William 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter," http://www.cr.nps.gov/delta/blues/people/leadbelly.htm (February 2003).
"The Leadbelly Web," Cycad Web Works,http://www.cycad.com/cgi-bin/Leadbelly/biog.html (January 2003).
"Ledbetter, Huddie," The Handbook of Texas Online,http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/LL/fle10.html (February 2003). □