Born: January 20, 1888, Mooringsport, Louisiana
Died: December 6, 1949, New York, New York
Based solely on the towering presence of his colorful reputation and the enormous contribution he made to the canon of American popular music, it would be natural enough to imagine William “Huddie” Ledbetter—better known as “Leadbelly” or, more commonly in recent years, “Lead Belly”—as a big man, tall of stature, muscular, imposing. After all, even before he became famous for his music, Leadbelly’s notoriety for violence—twice imprisoned for terms of 30 years each, twice pardoned by the governors of both Texas and Louisiana—preceded him.
In the most engaging pictures of him, a penetrating gaze rivets the viewer with an unwavering stare from behind the elongated features of a beautifully sculpted, African-American face with strong Cherokee bloodlines (his mother was half Cherokee) worthy of some powerful, tribal king.
His booming voice and ruggedly played twelve-string guitar—two guitars worth of guitar playing, really—only helped engrave this image of Leadbelly as a some kind of fierce, primitive bluesman. But the real Leadbelly, the Leadbelly who first learned his trade in the cotton fields, churches, back alleys and main streets of northern Louisiana, the Leadbelly who eventually sang at fundraisers for Communist sympathizers in Greenwich Village and loved plying his trade most of all for children, turns out to be a different sort of man.
The legendary Leadbelly, the great folk icon who gave us numbers so familiar it’s easy to forget we learned all of them them from a single person—“Goodnight, Irene,” “Midnight Special,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” “Rock Island Line” and more—turns out to be someone other than a one-dimensional, much-loved, itinerant singer of popular songs.
This is how 17-year-old Pete Seeger remembers Leadbelly, meeting him for the first time in Greenwich Villlage in the late 1930s, a time when working people above all others were revered by progressive artists and thinkers: “He was not tall, perhaps five-foot-seven or-eight, but compactly built and he moved with the soft grace of an athlete. He was gray-haired, in his late fifties, I’d say. Always neatly dressed.
“There I was, trying to cast off any traces of my Harvard days, scorning to waste money on clothes other than blue jeans. But Leadbelly always had on a clean, white shirt and starched collar, a well-pressed suit and shined shoes. He didn’t need to dress like a working man. His powerful, ringing voice, his muscular hands moving so surely over the strings of his huge twelve-string guitar, his honesty and his pride, everything about him proved he was one.”
The intensity of the image he conveyed might also lead to the impression that Leadbelly was something of a loner. Although occasionally reduced to living on welfare after he left the South and set himself up in New York City, Leadbelly’s apartment, by all accounts, was nearly always filled with friends and musicians. One who stayed there while he got himself established in the city—as did many others, including Woody Guthrie—was Brownie McGhee.
“It was not possible for me to count the number of folks that came through Leadbelly’s door,” McGhee recalled, giving us yet another view of the man at odds with the commonly received version: “I watched him sit after breakfast, and look eastward out the window. I listened as he tuned up his twelve-string Stella and eased his fingers up the neck, the same way a museum clerk touches the frame of the finest painting in his collection ….”
But what about his reputation for violence?
We don’t know much about Leadbelly’s growing up, in part because he made a determined effort to avoid talking about it; Pete Seeger said he couldn’t remember Leadbelly ever once talking about his earliest years in Louisiana and Texas. We know Leadbelly was born in rural, northwest Louisiana—very near the Texas state line—in 1888, well before the 19th century was drawing to an end. We also know his sharecropper father—who also had adopted a daughter, Australia—did well enough to send him to school, a rare circumstance in those days.
We also know Leadbelly was a headstrong and precocious youngster, that he had an uncommon gift for music—it’s said he could hear a song once and play it the rest of his life—and that he may have begun playing music as early as five or six, beginning on a fife he made for himself. It’s fairly certain that by the age of 12 or 14, he’d already begun playing regularly for “breakdowns” and “sukey jumps,” rural, African-American parties and dances.
We also know he liked Shreveport’s “red-light” district, that he spent time traveling with Blind Lemon Jefferson—one the first blues stars—and that he twice tried settling down to a more conventional life, the first time as a married cotton farmer, the second as a truck driver for the Gulf Refining Company.
Leadbelly was arrested many times, beginning as teenager when he was fined for carrying a concealed weapon after a shootout with a man at a sukey jump. Eventually he took on an alias and then took to hiding out at his father’s farm, where he was arrested for another shooting and sentenced in December, 1917, to 30 years at Texas’ Shaw State Prison Farm. It was there that he first became a musical star of sorts. His performance for Governor Pat Neff in the spring of 1924 earned him a pardon signed on the governor’s last day in office.
It wasn’t long before Leadbelly was back in trouble, sentenced for attempted murder in 1930 to 30 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. There, he was discovered by folklorist John Lomax on a field trip with his son, Alan, in the summer of 1933. The two were traveling through the Deep South collecting material, especially from prisoners and prison work teams. Lomax recognized the great resource Leadbelly represented, negotiated for his pardon with Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen and arranged for Leadbelly to come East and work for the Lomax family.
The Lomaxes tried to establish Leadbelly as a working musician, but made the unfortunate mistake of promoting his prison record and agreeing to his performing in prison stripes. The experience was deeply humiliating to the singer, who maintained his relationship but left the Lomax’s immediate circle of influence.
Things never got much better professionally for Leadbelly once he was established in the East. He recorded several times for commercial labels with very little success, mainly because the labels wanted to market him as a blues singer; not only was Leadbelly never genuinely a blues singer, he claimed never to have heard the blues growing up.
But he was regarded highly by the folk enthusiasts and progressive intellectuals that made up his social environment, and that was enough to offset the other problems that plagued him. He traveled to Paris and even Hollywood, trying to make it into the movies. Within the world he now inhabited, he was regarded with respect and admiration. And he remained optimistic about his chances even to the end, when Lou Gerhig’s disease finally silenced him on December 6, 1949.
Within a year his old friends, the Weavers, would score a surprise, number-one hit with Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” and six years later, Lonnie Donegan would do the same in England with “Rock Island Line,” both setting into motion chains of influence that would make the King of the 12-String Guitar a central figure in 20th-century popular music.
More than a quarter-century later, no less a presence than James Booker, generally regarded by musicians and music lovers alike as one of the central post-War New Orleans musicians, paid a personal tribute to Leadbelly on his first solo album, recorded in 1976. Acknowledging the prison term for drug possession he also served at Angola, a vast prison farm often referred to by inmates as the Ponderosa, Booker introduces his R&B-flavored version of “Goodnight, Irene” with high-spirited laughter.
“You might not believe it, but this song was written by a dude named Leadbelly,” Booker tells his studio audience. “Now, Leadbelly and Little Booker both had the pleasure of partying down on the Ponderosa!” The introduction is one of the most memorable verbal expressions by Booker on record.
Ten years later, when the Smithsonian Institution inaugurated plans to begin releasing its vast holdings of the Folkways label on CD and Columbia Records put together an all-star benefit recording, only two folk artists were featured: Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. The tribute—including must-hear versions of Little Richard ripping it up on “Rock Island Line,” Taj Mahal burning through “Bourgeois Blues,” and Sweet Honey in the Rock sweetly serenading “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie”—not only contributed the needed funds for a reissue program that continues to this day, it also set the stage for trends in the following decade supporting both roots-oriented recording artists and all-star tributes to important, commercially neglected musicians.
In retrospect, it’s possible to see the reputation for violence Leadbelly earned early in life as an outcome of the great pride he took in both his own abilities and in what he must have known would be his contribution to the history of 20th-century music. Growing up in the late 19th-century in northern Louisiana with an innate gift for music, he sought out and mastered the whole of the folk-music heritage of the mid-South region from Dallas to Birmingham. His ability to remember every song he heard was so acute that the Lomaxes recall Leadbelly continuing to expand his repertoire daily when he accompanied them on field recording trips to other Southern prisons.
And he didn’t just remember songs, he absorbed and transformed them in a way that made them essential and timeless. Of all the songs for which he is so well remembered today, it’s possible he actually wrote very few himself—perhaps only “Bourgeois Blues”—instead functioning throughout his life as a conduit that carried the music of the land and the small towns and the red-light districts to larger audiences. In part this is the true entertainer’s gift and without question, Leadbelly absolutely understood the art of the entertainer.
He also suffered the curse of being frequently misunderstood. It’s difficult to say how much this contributed to his early confrontations with authority, but it’s clear he had a hard time being adequately recognized in the last half of his life. Like many other Louisiana artists after him, Leadbelly embodied the world of music that he had inherited from a culturally rich, working-class environment and was able to offer it, practically whole, to a world that could only appreciate it in parts and within well-established categories.
If Leadbelly had been only a blues singer, or only a black city folk singer, he might have an easier time of things. But then, the same might be said for the long line of iconoclastic Louisiana musicians who have made their mark on the 20th-century, nearly all of them artful synthesizers, powerful interpreters and consummate entertainers who have been frequently neglected or misunderstood in the commercial world but revered by those who love music for music’s sake.
From that perspective, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton take their place alongside Pops and Fats, Professor Longhair and the Meters, Dr. John and even Harry Connick, Jr., establishing a line of cultural inheritance that continues to embrace the newest generations of New Orleans and Louisiana musicians, playing from their hearts and souls, bringing a variety of musical roots into play, with a musical whole that is certain to challenge easy categorization.
In the end, Pete Seeger’s words on Leadbelly and his legacy serve as a kind of benediction for the whole tradition of Louisiana musical giants. “He bequeathed us a couple hundred of the best songs we will ever know,” Seeger said. “The most important thing I learned from him was his straightforward approach, his direct honesty. I wish people would stop trying to imitate his accent or his guitar style and learn instead from his subtle simplicity and his powerful pride.”
Library of Congress Recordings / Alan Lomax, producer (1934)
Midnight Special; Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In; Let It Shine on Me
Library of Congress Recordings / Alan Lomax, producer (1939-1943)
The Titanic; Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; Pickup on This
Folkways Recordings / Moses Asch, producer (1943-1949)
Where Did You Sleep Last Night?; Bourgeois Blues; Shout On
Frederick Ramsey, producer / (1947-1949)
Lead Belly’s Last Sessions (four CDs)
Leadbelly’s only magnetic-tape recordings
King of the 12-String Guitar
Sings for Children
Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs
With Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry
Bunk Johnson and Leadbelly
Bunk & Leadbelly at New York Town Hall 1947
Folkways: A Vision Shared
Little Richard, Taj Mahal, Sweet Honey in the Rock, among others
Directed by Gordon Parks
Folkways: A Vision Shared
(CBS Music Video, 1986)
The Life and Legend of Leadbelly
by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell