Huddie Leadbelly

Instrument

Huddie William Ledbetter (/ˈhjdi/; January 23, 1888 – December 6, 1949),[1] better known by the stage name Lead Belly, was an American folk and blues singer, musician, and songwriter notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the folk standards he introduced, including his renditions of "In The Pines", "Goodnight, Irene", "Midnight Special", "Cotton Fields", and "Boll Weevil".

Lead Belly usually played a twelve-string guitar, but he also played the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and windjammer.[2] In some of his recordings, he sang while clapping his hands or stomping his foot.

The younger of two children, Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter to Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana.[6] On his World War II draft registration card in 1942, he gave his birthplace as Freeport, Louisiana ("Shreveport"). There is uncertainty over his precise date and year of birth. The Lead Belly Foundation gives his birth date as January 20, 1889,[7] his grave marker gives the year 1889, and his 1942 draft registration card states January 23, 1889.

By 1903, Huddie was already a "musicianer",[10]:28 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 various musical influences on Shreveport's Fannin Street, a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottoms, now referred to as Ledbetter Heights.

Between 1915 and 1939, Ledbetter served several prison and jail terms for a variety of criminal charges. After one prison release in 1934, the United States was in the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce. In September of that year, in need of regular work in order to avoid cancellation of his release from prison, Lead Belly asked John Lomax to take him on as a driver. For three months, he assisted the 67-year-old in his folk song collecting around the South.

Lead Belly was imprisoned multiple times beginning in 1915 when he was convicted of carrying a pistol and sentenced to time on the Harrison County chain gang. He later escaped and found work in nearby Bowie County under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. Later, in January 1918, he was imprisoned at the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit)[17] in Sugar Land, Texas, after killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. During his second prison term, another inmate stabbed him in the neck (leaving him with a fearsome scar he subsequently covered with a bandana); Lead Belly nearly killed his attacker with his own knife.

In 1930, Ledbetter was sentenced to Louisiana State Penitentiary after a summary trial for attempted homicide for stabbing a man in a fight. In 1939, Lead Belly served his final jail term for assault after stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan.

There are several conflicting stories about how Ledbetter acquired the nickname "Lead Belly", but he probably acquired it while in prison. Some claim his fellow inmates called him "Lead Belly" as a play on his family name and his physical toughness. 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 homemade liquor that Southern farmers, black and white, made to supplement their incomes.

Bob Dylan credits Lead Belly for getting him into folk music. In his Nobel Prize Lecture, Dylan said "somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Lead Belly record with the song 'Cotton Fields' on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated.