In the fourth, and last, installment for our Black History Month Throwback Thursday series; we dive into the fascinating, tragic and triumphant life of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
Huddie Ledbetter was born sometime between 1885 and 1889 near Mooringsport, in northern Louisiana, but he lived and attended school until he was about 13, in Texas, in Bowie County. He spent his youth wandering and learning in the Deep South as a field hand, blues musician. A multi-instrumentalist, his first instrument was the accordion.
In 1917, he began working with Blind Lemon Jefferson as his “Lead Boy”, guiding him, learning from him and helping him around the streets of Dallas, Texas. Their work together didn’t last long though, because Huddie was charged and convicted of murder in 1918. It is this stint in prison that is said to have given him his nickname. In 1925 he wrote a song to Governor Pat Morris Neff seeking his freedom. The story goes that Governor Neff was so affected by his song that he was pardoned, despite the fact that Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons.
He spent the next few years performing around the south, and concentrating on the 12-string guitar, which was to become his signature instrument. In 1930 he was once again convicted and jailed, this time for attempted murder, in Louisiana. It was at the Angola State Prison that he met John and Alan Lomax, who had come to Louisiana to record folk music for the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes were struck by Lead Belly’s powerful tenor, intense performance style, virtuosic guitar playing and obvious talent. They worked with Lead Belly to acquire him an early release, which was granted in 1934. After his release, he went on to work with the Lomax family in a variety of roles, and continued recording for the Smithsonian Folkways. He also began recording commercial music, playing on television and performing all over the country. He met, worked with and influenced other folk giants like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. In fact, The Weavers version of his song, Goodnight Irene was a smash hit just a year after he died of ALS. He left behind a vast legacy of music, and an influence that is felt in American Music to this day. More current artists who have covered him include Nirvana and LP.
In 1999, Smithsonian Folkways released an album of his songs for children. Below are two songs from that collection.