Lead Belly

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Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949) was an

American folk and blues musician notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity

on the twelve-string guitar, and the songbook of folk standards he



He is best known as Lead Belly. Though many releases list him as

"Leadbelly", he himself wrote it as "Lead Belly". This is also the spelling

on his tombstone, as well as of the Lead Belly Foundation.


Although Lead Belly usually played the twelve-string guitar, he could also

play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and "windjammer" (diatonic

accordion). In some of his recordings he sings while clapping his hands or

stomping his foot.


The topics of Lead Belly's music covered a wide range, including gospel;

blues about women, liquor, prison life, and racism; and folk songs about

cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding, and dancing. He also wrote

songs about people in the news, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf

Hitler, Jean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes.


Lead Belly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.



Early life

Lead Belly's WWII Draft Registration Card Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana in

either January 1888 or 1889. The 1900 United States Census lists "Hudy William Ledbetter" as 12 years old, born January 1888; and the 1910 and

1930 censuses also give his birth year as 1888. However, in April 1942, Ledbetter filled out his World War II draft registration with a birth date of

January 23, 1889 and a birthplace of Freeport, Louisiana. His grave marker has the date on his draft registration.


Ledbetter was the younger of two children born to Wesley Ledbetter and Sallie Brown, preceded by a sister named Australia. The pronunciation of

his name is purported to be "HYEW-dee" or "HUGH-dee. Ledbetter can be heard pronouncing his name as "HYEW-dee" on the track "Boll Weevil,"

from the Smithsonian Folkways album Lead Belly Sings for Children His parents had cohabited for several years, but they legally married on

February 26, 1888. When Huddie was five years old, the family settled in Bowie County, Texas.


By 1903, Huddie was already a "musicianer, a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport audiences in St. Paul's

Bottoms, a notorious red-light district there. He began to develop his own style of music after exposure to a variety of musical influences on

Shreveport's Fannin Street, a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottoms, now referred to as Ledbetter Heights.


The 1910 census of Harrison County, Texas, shows "Hudy" Ledbetter living next door to his parents with his first wife, Aletha "Lethe" Henderson.

Aletha, then seventeen, had been 15 when they married two years earlier. It was in Texas that Ledbetter received his first instrument, an

accordion, from his uncle Terrell. By his early 20s, having fathered at least two children, Ledbetter left home to make his living as a guitarist and

occasional laborer.


Influenced by the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, Huddie wrote the song "The Titanic",the first composed on the 12-string guitar later to become

his signature instrument. Initially played when performing with Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897–1929) in and around Dallas, Texas, the song is about

champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson's being denied passage on the Titanic. While Johnson had in fact been denied passage on a ship for

beingBlack, it had not been the Titanic.[9] Still, the verse sang: "Jack Johnson tried to get on board. The Captain, he says, 'I ain't haulin' no coal!'

Fare thee, Titanic! Fare thee well!" Ledbetter later noted he had to leave out this passage when playing in front of white audiences.[


Prison years


Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Lead Belly served time


Ledbetter's volatile temper sometimes led him into trouble with the law. In 1915, he was convicted of carrying a pistol and sentenced to time on the

Harrison County chain gang. He escaped, finding work in nearby Bowie County under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. In January 1918 he was

imprisoned at the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit)[11] in Sugar Land, Texas, after killing one of his own relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a

woman. While there he may have first heard the traditional prison song "Midnight Special".In 1925 he was pardoned and released after writing a

song to Governor Pat Morris Neff seeking his freedom, having served the minimum seven years of a 7-to-35-year sentence. Combined with his

good behavior (which included entertaining the guards and fellow prisoners), his appeal to Neff's strong religious beliefs proved sufficient. It was a

testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (the only recourse for prisoners, since in most

Southern prisons there was no provision for parole).[ According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell's book, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (1999),

Neff had regularly brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Ledbetter perform.


In 1930 Ledbetter was sentenced to Louisiana's Angola Prison Farm, after a summary trial for attempted homicide for stabbing a white man in a

fight. He was "discovered" there three years later during a visit by folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax


Deeply impressed by Ledbetter's vibrant tenor and extensive repertoire, the Lomaxes recorded him in 1933 on portable aluminum disc recording

equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned with new and better equipment in July 1934, recording hundreds of his songs. On August 1,

Ledbetter was released after having again served nearly all of his minimum sentence, following a petition the Lomaxes had taken to Louisiana

Governor Oscar K. Allen at his urgent request. It was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, "Goodnight Irene."


A prison official later wrote John Lomax denying that Ledbetter's singing had anything to do with his release from Angola (state prison records

confirm he was eligible for early release due to good behavior). However, both Ledbetter and the Lomaxes believed that the record they had taken

to the governor had hastened his release from prison.




There are several conflicting stories about how Ledbetter acquired the nickname "Lead Belly", though it was probably while in prison. Some claim

his fellow inmates called him "Lead Belly" as a play on his family name and his physical toughness. It is recounted that during his second prison

term, another inmate stabbed him in the neck (leaving him with a fearsome scar he subsequently covered with a bandana); Ledbetter nearly killed

his attacker with his own knife.[14] Others say he earned the name after being wounded in the stomach with buckshot.[14] Another theory is that

the name refers to his ability to drink moonshine, the home-made liquor which Southern farmers, black and white, made to supplement their

incomes. Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy thought it came from a supposed tendency to lay about as if "with a stomach weighted down by lead" in the

shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working. Or it may be simply a corruption of his last name pronounced with a southern accent.

Whatever its origin, he adopted the nickname as a pseudonym while performing.


 Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and Martha Promise Ledbetter, Wilton, Connecticut, February 1935.


Life after prison


By the time Lead Belly was released from prison the United States was deep in the Great Depression and jobs were very scarce. In September

1934, in need of regular work in order to avoid having his release canceled, Lead Belly met with John A. Lomax and asked him to take him on as a

driver. For three months he assisted the 67-year-old in his folk song collecting abroad the South. (Son Alan was ill and did not accompany his

father on this trip.)


In December Lead Belly participated in a "smoker" (group sing) at a Modern Language Association meeting at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania,

where the senior Lomax had a prior lecturing engagement. He was written up in the press as a convict who had sung his way out of prison. On New

Year's Day, 1935, the pair arrived in New York City, where Lomax was scheduled to meet with his publisher, Macmillan, about a new collection of

folk songs. The newspapers were eager to write about the "singing convict" and Time magazine made one of its first filmed March of Time

newsreels about him. Lead Belly attained fame (although not fortune).


The following week, he began recording for the American Record Corporation, but these recordings achieved little commercial success. Of the over

40 sides he recorded for ARC (intended to be released on their Banner, Melotone, Oriole, Perfect, and Romeo labels, and their very short-lived

Paramount series), only five sides were actually issued. Part of the reason for the poor sales may have been because ARC insisted on releasing

only his blues songs rather than the folk songs for which he would later become better known. In any case, Lead Belly continued to struggle

financially. Like many performers, what income he made during his lifetime would come from touring, not from record sales.


In February 1935, he married his girlfriend, Martha Promise, who came north from Louisiana to join him.


The month of February was spent recording his and other African-American repertoire and interviews about his life with Alan Lomax for their

forthcoming book, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936). Concert appearances were however slow to materialize. In March 1935 Lead

Belly accompanied John Lomax on a previously scheduled two-week lecture tour of colleges and universities in the Northeast, culminating at





Lead Belly playing an accordion


At the end of the month John Lomax decided he could no longer work with Lead Belly and gave him and Martha money to go back to Louisiana by

bus. He gave Martha the money her husband had earned during three months of performing, but in installments, on the pretext Lead Belly would

drink it all if given a lump sum. From Louisiana Lead Belly successfully sued Lomax both for the full amount and release from his management

contract. The quarrel was very bitter with hard feelings on both sides. Curiously, in the midst of the legal wrangling, Lead Belly wrote to Lomax

proposing they team up again. It was not to be. Further, the book about Lead Belly published by the Lomaxes in the fall of the following year

proved a commercial failure.


In January 1936, Lead Belly returned to New York on his own without John Lomax in an attempted comeback. He performed twice a day at Harlem's

Apollo Theater during the Easter season in a live dramatic recreation of the Time Life newsreel (itself a recreation) about his prison encounter with

John A. Lomax, where he had worn stripes, though by this time he was no longer associated with Lomax.


Life magazine ran a three-page article titled, "Lead Belly - Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel," in its April 19, 1937 issue. It included a full-page,

color (rare in those days) picture of him sitting on grain sacks playing his guitar and singing.[16] Also, included was a striking picture of Martha

Promise (identified in the article as his manager); photos showing Lead Belly's hands playing the guitar (with the caption "these hands once killed a

man"); Texas Governor Pat M. Neff; and the "ramshackle" Texas State Penitentiary. The article attributes both of his pardons to his singing of his

petitions to the governors, who were so moved that they pardoned him. The article's text ends with "he... may well be on the brink of a new and

prosperous period."


Lead Belly failed to stir the enthusiasm of Harlem audiences. Instead, he attained success playing at concerts and benefits for an audience of leftist

folk music aficionados. He developed his own style of singing and explaining his repertoire in the context of Southern black culture, taking the hint

from his previous participation in John A. Lomax's college lectures. He was especially successful with his repertoire of children's game songs (as a

younger man in Louisiana he had sung regularly at children's birthday parties in the black community). He was written up as a heroic figure by the

black novelist, Richard Wright, then a member of the Communist Party, in the columns of the Daily Worker, of which Wright was the Harlem editor.

The two men became personal friends, though some say Lead Belly himself was apolitical and if anything he was a supporter of Wendell Willkie,

the centrist Republican candidate, for whom he wrote a campaign song. However, he also wrote the song Bourgeois Blues, which has radical or left

wing lyrics.


In 1939, Lead Belly was back in jail for assault, after stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan. Alan Lomax, then 24, took him under his wing and

helped raise money for his legal expenses, dropping out of graduate school to do so. After his release (in 1940-41), Lead Belly appeared as a

regular on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking CBS radio show, Back Where I Come From, broadcast nationwide. He also appeared in

night clubs withJosh White, becoming a fixture in New York City's surging folk music scene and befriending the likes of Sonny Terry, Brownie

McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger, all fellow performers on Back Where I Come From. During the first half of the decade he

recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress, and for Moe Asch (future founder of Folkways Records), and in 1944 headed to California, where he

recorded strong sessions for Capitol Records.He lodged with a studio guitar player on Merrywood Drive in Laurel Canyon.


Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to see success in Europe


In 1949, Lead Belly had a regular radio broadcast on station WNYC in New York on Sunday nights on Henrietta Yurchenco's show. Later in the year

he began his first European tour with a trip to France, but fell ill before its completion, and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS),

or Lou Gehrig's disease.[13] His final concert was at the University of Texas at Austin in a tribute to his former mentor, John A. Lomax, who had

died the previous year. Martha also performed at that concert, singing spirituals with her husband.


Lead Belly died later that year in New York City, and was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, 8 miles (13 km) west of

Blanchard, in Caddo Parish. He is honored with a statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport.




Lead Belly styled himself "King of the 12-string guitar," and despite his use of other instruments like the accordion, the most enduring image of

Lead Belly as a performer is wielding his unusually large Stella twelve-string.[17] This guitar had a slightly longer scale length than a standard

guitar, slotted tuners, ladder bracing, and a trapeze-style tailpiece to resist bridge lifting.


Lead Belly played with finger picks much of the time, using a thumb pick to provide a walking bass line and occasionally to strum.[citation needed]

This technique, combined with low tunings and heavy strings, gives many of his recordings a piano-like sound. Lead Belly's tuning is debated,[by

whom?] but appears to be a downtuned variant of standard tuning; more than likely he tuned his guitar strings relative to one another, so that the

actual notes shifted as the strings wore. Lead Belly's playing style was popularized by Pete Seeger, who adopted the twelve-string guitar in the

1950s and released an instructional LP and book using Lead Belly as an exemplar of technique.


In some of the recordings where Lead Belly accompanied himself, he would make an unusual type of grunt between his verses, best described as

"Haah!" in many of his songs such as "Looky Looky Yonder," "Take this Hammer"Linin' Track" and "Julie Ann Johnson" feature this unusual

vocalization. In the song, "Take this Hammer," Lead Belly explained, "Every time the men say 'haah,' the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we

swing, and we sing The "haah" sound can be heard in the work chants sung by Southern railroad section workers, "gandy dancers," where it was

used to coordinate the crews as they laid and maintained the tracks before modern machinery was available.




Lead Belly's work has been widely covered by subsequent musical acts, including Brian Wilson, Delaney Davidson, Tom Russell, Lonnie Donegan,

Bryan Ferry ("Goodnight Irene"), The Beach Boys ("Cotton Fields"), Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Midnight Special", "Cotton Fields"), Elvis

Presley,[19] Abba, Pete Seeger, The Weavers,[20] Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Ram Jam, The Animals, Jay Farrar, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan,

Tom Petty, Dr. John,Ry Cooder, Davy Graham, Maria Muldaur, Rory Block, Grateful Dead, Gene Autry, Odetta, Billy Childish (who named his son

Huddie), Mungo Jerry, Paul King, Led Zeppelin ("Gallows Pole"), Van Morrison, Michelle Shocked,Tom Waits ("Goodnight, Irene"), Scott H. Biram,

Ron Sexsmith, British Sea Power, Rod Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ram Jam ("Black Betty"), Blind Willies("In the Pines"),

The White Stripes ("Boll Weevil"), The Fall, Hole, Smog, Old Crow Medicine Show, Spiderbait, Meat Loaf, Ministry, Raffi, Rasputina, Rory Gallagher

(Out on the Western Plains), the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Deer Tick, Hugh Laurie, X, Bill Frisell,Koerner, Ray & Glover, Red Hot Chili Peppers,

Nirvana, Meat Puppets, Mark Lanegan, WZRD ("Where Did You Sleep Last Night"), and Phil Lee (I Got Stripes), among many others.


Modern rock audiences likely owe their familiarity with Lead Belly to Nirvana's performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on the televised

concert later released as MTV Unplugged in New York. Singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain refers to his attempt to convince David Geffen to purchase Lead

Belly's guitar for him in an interval before the song is played (connecting the song with Lead Belly in a way that is more tangible than the liner

notes where Lead Belly appears on other albums), and partly due to the fact that it sold nearly 7 million copies. In his notebooks, Cobain listed

Lead Belly's "Last Session Vol. 1" as one of the 50 albums most influential to the formation of Nirvana's sound.







The Forum post is edited by bninna Aug 12 '15
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