"No Lead Belly, no Beatles." - George Harrison
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 yearsold. As a young man he was introduced to the guitar by his uncle Terrell Ledbetter and from that moment on he was transfixed by the guitar. He mastered that instrument and just about any instrument helaid his hands on, later learning to read music and to play the accordion, mandolin and piano. It has been said that one day Lead Belly witnessed a Mexican guitarist playing the twelve string guitar which struck hisinterest in mastering the unusual instrument.
After the 8th grade, he quit school and, by the time he was 14 yearsold, 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 his Stella brand guitar became his ticket to life and to his freedom.
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. He was and incredible strong man and was renowned for for picking 1,000lbs of cotton a day.
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 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. Incredibly, Neff broke his promise and set Lead Belly 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, this time in the infamous Angola Farm prison plantation in Louisiana. In a way, this was a stroke of luck, because he was discovered there by folklorists John and his son Alan Lomax, who were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress.
John Lomax and his son Alan later brought Lead Belly to New York where he played on college campuses like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and NYU. 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. He was received with great acclaim. The New York Herald Tribune greeted his arrival with an article under the headline “Lomax Arrives with Lead Belly, Negro Minstrel.” In 1935, he married Martha Promise, with whom he would live until his death.
In the early ‘40s he performed with Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Woody Guthrie, often hosting sessions in his apartment on E. 10th Street; often, he would play for the children in Tompkins Square Park. He would also babysit and perform for his nephew. He performed as such distinguished venues as Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and the Village Vanguard as well as hosting the WNYC radio show Folk Songs of America, all while wearing his trademark suit, handkerchief, and bow tie.
In 1948, Lead Belly cut what would later become known as his Last Sessions. 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 enjoyed national recognition as a blues and folk musician and singer. Lead Belly felt his music and talent were gifts from God.
During a European of 1949 Lead Belly fell ill and tests revealed that he was suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This disease destroyed all the muscles in his bodygiving him little opportunity to play the guitar without pain.
Prior to his death at Bellevue Hospital on December 6,1949, Lead Belly played at a show at Carnegie Hall which was organized by Pete Seeger. On the bill were Woodie Guthrie and Tom Paley. Lead Belly sang “Goodnight, Irene”. This was his last ever live performance.
Lead Belly never got to fully enjoy the fruits ofhis music. Lead Belly's song catalog consisted of well over 500 songs: most famous were Midnight Special, Goodnight Irene, Rock Island Line, Pick a Bale of Cotton and Take This Hammer.
After Lead Belly’s death, the Weavers, featuring Pete Seeger, recorded their version of “GoodNight, Irene” which went to number 1 on the charts. That song sold a million copies.
Lead Belly’s music has had an unparalleled influence on some of the greatest musicians of all time. Artists like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Little Richard, John Fogerty, Roger Daltrey and Van Morrison have all expressed their reverence of Lead Belly’s music.
As Van Morrison said: “Lead Belly wasn’t an influence, he was the influence.”
Lead Belly is remembered not only as a musical giant but a legend in his own right throughout the world. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, they describe him as:
“Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the world as “Lead Belly,” survived a life that included brutalizing poverty and long stretches in prison to become an emblematic folk singer and musician.”