Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was an American folk-blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. His vibrant tenor, his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar and songs such as Goodnight, Irene, The Midnight Special and Where Did You Sleep Last Night made him one of the greatest musicians of all time as well as one of the greatest musical influences of the 20th century.
Lead Belly was born on a plantation near Moorington, Louisiana on January 20, 1888. From the age of 15, Lead Belly plays in Shreveport’s brothels. It’s the beginning of an eventful musical career that will take him to the roads of Texas, where he served as a guide to Blind Lemon Jefferson, to the cabarets of Greenwich Village in New York and European venues. Like his compatriots Mance Lipscomb and Henry Thomas, Lead Belly is a songster whose huge repertoire ranges from lullabies to cowboy songs with, of course, some blues.
Lead Belly was imprisoned multiple times. In 1915, he was convicted for carrying a pistol and sentenced to time in the Harrison County. In 1917, he was arrested, charged with murder of a man and eventually found guilty. He was imprisoned at the Imperial Farm in Texas. His musical talents will sometimes serve him in prison. Powerful guitarist, Leadbelly forcefully uses the 12-string guitar on which he weighs the alternating bass, in a style reminiscent of that of Maybelle Carter. This technique is inspired by flamenco, widely used in this region close to the Mexican border. It will greatly influence folk musicians’ playing in the 1960s. In 1925, he was pardoned and released after writing a song to Governor Pat Morris Neff seeking his freedom. In 1930, Lead Belly was sentenced to Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm for attempted homicide.
When folklorists John and Alan Lomax traveled to Southern prisons in search of folk musicians on behalf of the Library of Congress, they are quickly directed to Lead Belly. Lomax, which sought to collect recordings of traditional folk songs, is impressed by the variety and extent of Lead Belly’s repertoire. They succeed after several – sometimes spectacular – moves to free him from prison.
In 1934, Leadbelly became the first Southern Black musician to play to a white audience in the North. Thanks to his eclectic repertoire, his vibrant tenor, his virtuosity on the 12-string guitar, Lead Belly was suddenly at the heart of an urban Folk movement that originated in the 1930s in Greenwich Village, and progressive movements in New York. Along with Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Peter Seeger, Leadbelly enjoyed a great success amongst white audiences. Despite his success, Lead Belly remained penniless as the Lomax (father and son) did well out of him, taking two-thirds of his record payments – and even two-thirds of the money he made passing the hat round at shows.
After the war, Leadbelly goes on tour in France. His brief passage in Europe will pave the way for other bluesmen to tour in European countries. In 1949, the folk group The Weavers gains a huge worldwide success with the ballad Goodnight, Irene, composed by Lead Belly. Unfortunately, Lead Belly dies on December 6, 1949, before being able to reap the rewards of this late success. The reputation of Lead Belly grows stronger and stronger amongst folk circles until eventually elevating him as a mythical figure.
Lead Belly has left us an immense legacy, introduced us to many folk standards and wrote some of the greatest songs of all time. He has influenced many generations of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Rory Gallagher, Jack White and Kurt Cobain to name just a few. Lead Belly was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.