About Lead Belly...

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 transfixed by the guitar. He mastered that instrument and just about any instrument he laid 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 his interest in mastering the unusual instrument.

After the eighth 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 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 incredible strong man and was renowned for for picking 1,000 pounds of cotton a day.

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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.

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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. 10
th Street; often, he would play for the children in Tompkins Square Park. He would also babysit and perform for his nephew. He performed 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. He was a sharp-dressed man who wished to distance himself from his past - a past that, in common with many African-Americans of the 20th Century had shaped a person’s life through racial-agendas, politics, prejudice and circumstances.

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.

In 1949, while touring in France, 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 body giving 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 tribute show at Carnegie Hall which was organized by Oscar Brand. On the bill were Woodie Guthrie and Tom Paley. Lead Belly, now largely confined to a wheelchair and of limited movement, managed to summon the strength to sit in a chair on stage while the lights were down during the intermission. He was a proud, strong man and did not want the audience to see him in a wheelchair.

When the lights came up for the second half, Lead Belly was sitting proudly in a chair strumming away on his 12 string Stella guitar. According to a first-hand account from Oscar Brand, Lead Belly sang “Goodnight, Irene” as well as he had ever done. This was his last ever live performance.


Sadly, Lead Belly never got to fully enjoy the fruits of his music. He was a musical Van Gogh to a certain extent - and less than six months after his death, Pete Seeger and The Weavers had a worldwide number one hit with “Goodnight, Irene”. The song went to number one and sold over a million copies.

Lead Belly’s song catalogue was vast. It consisted of well over 500 tunes which he had accumulated in the good, the bad and the ugly corners of American life and society: most famous are Midnight Special, Black Betty, Goodnight Irene, Rock Island Line, Pick a Bale of Cotton, Where Did You Sleep Last Night and Take This Hammer.

His 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, The Animals, John Fogerty, Roger Daltrey, Van Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin 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 described him thus:

“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.”