Huddie Ledbetter, better
known to the music world as “Lead Belly” was
born January 20, 1889, in Mooringsport, Louisiana (near
Shreveport). Lead Belly was the only child of Wesley and
Sally Ledbetter. Lead Belly first tried his hand at playing
music when he was only two years old. As a young man he
was introduced to the guitar by his Uncle Terrell Ledbetter
and from that moment on he was electrified by the guitar.
He mastered that instrument and just about any instrument
he laid his hands on. He learned to play the accordion,
mandolin and piano. Which gave hime a wide knowledge of
various musical instruments and rhythm. It has been said
that one day Lead Belly witnessed a Mexican guitarist
playing the twelve string guitar which struck his interest
in mastering the unusal instrument.
8th grade, he quit school and, by the time he was 14 years
old, he was a popular musician and singer in the weekend
“sukey jumps” and “juke joints.”
He later became known as the king of the twelve-string
guitar and “Stella” as he affectionately called
his guitar became his ticket to life and his freedom.
Leadbelly was passionate about his love of music. It was
his way of expressing what was written on his heart and
soul. This love of music led him to leave his father’s
farm at an early age to pursue his music. Huddie traveled
the southwest playing his guitar and working as a laborer
when he had to.
Huddie was legendary for
picking 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad
Lead Belly once said, "When
I play, the women would come around to listen and their
men would get angry." In 1918, he fought and killed
a man in Dallas and was sentenced to thirty years to be
served in the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. In 1925,
he wrote a song asking Governor Pat Neff for a pardon.
Neff, who had promised at his election never to pardon
a prisoner, broke his promise and set Huddie Ledbetter
free. Back on the road with many new songs he had learned
or written at Huntsville, Huddie again found enthusiastic
audiences throughout the south. But, as the center of
admiring crowds, he was again the target of envy and jealousy.
In 1930, after a fight at a party, which was normal in
the Jim Crow south he was sentenced to another prison
term in the infamous Angola Farm prison plantation in
Louisiana. In a way, this was a stroke of luck, because
he was discovered by folklorists John and Alan Lomax,
who were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress.
John Lomax and his son Allen, who brought him to New York
where he played on college campuses like Harvard, Priceton,
NYU and the list goes on. He was received with great acclaim.
Shortly thereafter Lead Belly
relocated to New York, where he forged a reputation on
the folk circuit, making personal appearances, recording
for a variety of labels and doing radio work. In the early
40s he performed with Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie
McGhee and Woody Guthrie. In 1948 Lead Belly cut, with
the aid of the newly invented long playing record, what
would later become known as his Last Sessions, a definitive
document of The Life and Music of the King of the Twelve-String
Guitar. Lead Belly enjoyed national recognition as a blues
and folk musician and singer. Lead Belly felt his music
and talent were gifts from God. His songs could not be
put into one category. He wrote children’s songs,
field songs, ballads, square dance songs, prison songs,
folk songs, and blues.
Lead Belly was a man whose
life, like that of any other man, had its ups and downs.
Good or bad, Lead Belly told the world about those things
through his songs. Lead Belly’s fame and success
continued to increase until he fell ill while on a European
Tour. Tests revealed that he suffered from amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949.
This disease destroyed all the muscles in his body giving
him little opportunity to fully play the guitar without
pain. He died on December 6,1949 and never got to fully
enjoy the fruits of his music. In which Lead Belly's song
catalog is consisted of well over 500 songs. The most
famous were Midnight Special, Cotton Fields, Boll Weevil,
Kisses Sweeter than Wine, Rock Island Line, and many,
After Lead Belly’s
death, the Weavers, a folk quartet sent “Good Night,
Irene” to #1 on the charts, which became the most
famous song in his repertoire. That song sold a million
copies and was recorded also six months later by Pete
Seeger. His music still has a great influence on some
of the greatest artists both black and white. Artists
like The Beetles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Little
Richard,have all expressed their early studies of music
to Lead Belly's records.
Today Lead Belly is remembered
not only as a musical giant but a legend in his own right
throughout the world. He is remembered as the “King
of the 12-String Guitar.” Many of his songs can
be found in the Library of Congress, where generations
to come can listen and enjoy them.