Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Huddie William Ledbetter, 23 January 1889, Mooringsport LA; d 6 December 1949, NYC) Blues/folk singer, songwriter, guitarist, other instruments. (He gave this birth date on his 1942 draft registration.) He was born on a plantation, raised in Texas; learned Cajun accordion as a child, later guitar and harmonica. He was a father at 15, married in 1916, again in 1935. 'Leadbelly' may have been a corruption of his name or a reference to strength, a buckshot wound or sexual prowess. (He and his family used the form 'Lead Belly', but the one-word form is long established.) He was jailed for assault in Texas c.1916 and allegedly escaped; jailed for murder in January 1918 in Sugraland Texas (though sources differ) and (the legend says) sang and played his way out, partly by writing a song for the governor. He worked outside music, was jailed again February 1930 in Louisiana (ten years for 'assault to kill with intent to murder'). He was discovered there by folklorists John and Alan Lomax; they recorded him for the Library of Congress; he was not pardoned, as the legend has it, but was eligible for parole. He went to New York to work as a chauffeur and a folksinger for the Lomaxes, appeared with John in a March Of Time newsreel in 1935, recorded for the Library of Congress and ARC labels, Musicraft '39, Victor labels '40, also Folkways and its predecessor Asch (Moses Asch is said to have recorded about 900 songs), Capitol and others; many broadcasts have been preserved. He performed on the college circuit and in theatres; moved to NYC from 1937 to work clubs, political rallies, etc. John Lomax had orchestrated a media campaign that helped to make Leadbelly famous (though not rich), but the two men were both proud with hot tempers and they fell out (though Leadbelly remained friends with Alan).

He was supposed to be a volatile man, but his crimes were apparently committed in self-defence, and he was very good at working with children. What is indisputable is his store of songs and his talent: the modern era of folk music in the USA began with the meeting in NYC of Leadbelly's rural folk-blues, Woody Guthrie's itinerant dust-bowl troubadour and Pete Seeger's incipient urban folk style. Leadbelly was taken up by NYC left-wing intellectuals in an early example of radical chic, but this did not lead to financial security; he served a term for assault NY '39-40 and often worked outside music. He worked with Guthrie, Seeger, Josh White and Burl Ives at a benefit for migrant workers '40, later with Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee as the Headline Singers, and for People's Music (see Seeger's entry). To Hollywood in 1944 for a short film Three Songs By Leadbelly '45; toured France '49; died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that killed baseball star Lou Gehrig.

Gordon Parks made a film biography Leadbelly '76; Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell published The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly '92. Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures (2007) also has valuable text, and was a labor of love by author Tyehimba Jess and editor John Reynolds, with an intro by Tom Waits. Among the many songs Leadbelly wrote or collected are 'Alberta', 'The Boll Weevil', 'Cotton Fields', 'The Midnight Special', 'Pick A Bale Of Cotton', 'Rock Island Line', 'Goodnight Irene' (no. 1 USA '50 by the Weavers). His story-telling was part of his fame; he specialized in twelve- string guitar and his style was midway between that of country blues singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson (with whom he worked c1917) and the night-club style of White. He taught Seeger the importance of rhythm, and was capable of generating tremendous rhythmic excitement (e.g. on the Victor recording of 'Pick A Bale Of Cotton'). Compilations on Bluebird, Rounder, Columbia, Biograph (eight 1935 tracks with 13 by Blind Willie McTell) and Smithsonian/Folkways; the latter's Where Did You Sleep Last Night? with over 30 tracks is a good place to start.