Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, is a truly unique figure in American music of the 20th century. Often mistaken as a blues performer he was a profound influence on the folk stars of the 1940s such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who in turn influenced the folk revival and the development of rock music from the 1960s onward, which made his induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 wholly appropriate.
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Lead Belly was an old-school wrecking ball of folk-singing awesomeness who worked hard labour as a sharecropper in the Depression-era South, lived it up with hot chicks, stiff drinks and smoke-filled clubs in Harlem, kicked his enemies’ arses in at least five hardcore back-alley knife fights, escaped from jail once, convinced the governors of two states to pardon him from murder raps using nothing more than a guitar and his singing voice, and went on to basically help create modern music by influencing everyone from Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra to Kurt Cobain and Jack White. Tough as hell, built like a brick shithouse, he drank hard, fought harder, played the twelve-string guitar better than any man alive and once responded to being stabbed in the throat with a prison shank by pulling the shiv out of his own neck and almost murdering the chap with it.
Huddie William Ledbetter was born on a Louisiana bayou in January of 1888. One of five kids, Ledbetter’s dad was a sharecropper – a tough, calloused-handed wandering manual laborer who worked twelve-hour shifts in the hot Louisiana sun for basically zero pay. Huddie Ledbetter quickly realized that bouncing around the countryside with his dirt-poor family looking for backbreaking jobs wasn’t his thing, so he decided to get the hell out of there, beat the crappy hand that circumstance dealt him and become a superstar musician. By twelve he’d dropped out of schooland by fifteen he’d taught himself how to play the accordion and was playing shows in the St. Paul’s Bottom neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana – a hardcore red light district. Surrounded by drunken debauchery didn’t derail Lead Belly’s quest and by the age of sixteen he was married with two kids. By twenty he was divorced, out of Shreveport, wandering the South playing shows in any venue that would have him and working hard labor jobs when the music didn’t pay the bills.
I imagine Lead Belly’s early life being kind of like Tommy Johnson in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, only with more face-shanking brutality. Lead rode the rails, traveling the land from the beer-soaked streets of Shreveport’s seediest neighborhoods to the hottest clubs in Deep Ellum, Texas, hanging out at every bar, saloon and music venue along the way. But Lead wasn’t just there to party. He made it his life’s mission to listen to every musician he could find and absorb all the musical knowledge he could. He learned to play the piano, guitar, harmonica, mandolin and violin, became the undisputed master of the twelve-string guitar, and spoke to so many famous blues and folk musicians that he became a walking encyclopedia of American folk tunes. Before long he could play basically every folk song there was and when he wasn’t putting a new spin on old standards he was writing badass songs about cowboys, sailors, women, booze, prison and God. And Hitler. Along the line he worked hard jobs to earn enough cash to put food on the table, hammering railroad spikes, picking cotton, herding cattle as a cowboy, and hammering fence posts. Real work and work he was damn good at thanks to his being basically gigantic and stronger than a team of oxen.
Leadbelly’s budding music career hit a slight hitch in 1915, when the folk guitarist was arrested for punching a dude in the face, pulling a gun in the middle of a barroom brawl, then pummeling someone with it. He was sentenced to serve an unspecified period of hard labour on a chain gang in Texas, hard work that paid even worse than sharecropping. Two days into his mandatory community service whacking rocks with a pickaxe Lead slipped off when the shotgun-toting guards weren’t looking, bolted out of there on foot, escaped the prison work patrol, fled to the next county, changed his name, and went right back to work as a manual laborer by day and an aspiring musician by night.
He managed to lay low long enough for the heat to die down, but this stone-cold, two-fisted badass was a hot-blooded man whose profession required that he frequent a lot of divey bars populated by a fair number of douchebags, and trouble found him once again a few years later. The details of this particular story are a little sketchy, but apparently in 1918 Lead’s cousin’s husband was doing some fucked-up bullshit, so Lead decided that the best way to resolve the situation was to show up at the dude’s house with a knife and a pistol and beat the shit out of him and all of his friends. In the ensuing battle Lead Belly shot the husband dead and knocked another guy unconscious, a feat of badassitude that earned our hero a sentence of 7-to-35 years in the Texas State Penitentiary.
During his stay in the clink, Lead Belly made a hell of a name for himself by smuggling in a guitar and spending all of his free time singing songs and playing music for the guards and prisoners. Eventually, the Governor of Texas got word of what was going on and decided he needed to see this ‘Singing Convict’ for himself, and he was so goddamned impressed that he ended up bringing his entire family and friends back a couple times just to hear Lead Belly shred the twelve-string. Six years into his sentence, Lead Belly wrote a song asking the Governor for a pardon.
He got it.
Most music historians agree that it was in prison that Huddie Ledbetter got his now-famous nickname. There are tons of theories as to why ‘Lead Belly’ is the name that stuck, and I dare say all of them are awesome. Some folks claim it’s because he was tough as hell, built like a wall of iron and muscle and capable of swinging an axe or shovel with twice the strength of any other inmate. Some say it’s because he could drink even the nastiest fucking bathtub moonshine and show no ill effects. Others claim that he once took a bullet (in some versions a full-on blast of shotgun buckshot) to the abdomen and survived. We will probably never know for sure, but we do know that from this point on Huddie Ledbetter was only known as Lead Belly.
Lead spent the next five years playing shows and working hard shitty day jobs, but trouble found him once again in 1930 when he and some friends got into a back alley New Orleans knife fight with a gang of white guys who were presumably looking for trouble and found a hell of a lot more of it then they’d bargained for. Lead was arrested for stabbing one of those fucks, and was sentenced to another lengthy stay, this time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Just like before, Lead Belly entertained the guards, inmates, and wardens with his music, but it turns out there are asshole critics everywhere – a couple years into his stay, some inmate jumped Lead Belly from behind and drove a prison shank into the side of his neck. Lead responded by throwing the dude down, pulling the fucking knife out of his own neck, and almost killing the guy with it. For the rest of his life he had a hardcore scar that spanned several inches across his throat.
Just like before, Lead Belly’s ‘singing convict’ thing began to draw some local attention, and it was in 1934 that a historian and folklorist named John Lomax showed up at the Lousiana State Pen to see what was up with this guy. He was so blown away that he had Lead record some tracks on a phonograph disc (this would mark the first time he was ever recorded). Lead recorded a song called ‘Goodnight, Irene’ that he’d learned from his uncle, as well as a couple other tracks. Lomax played them for the Governor of Louisiana, asking for a pardon, and once again, Lead Belly was let out of jail solely on account of his singing voice and musical prowess. The two men then spent the entirety of 1934 driving around the Depression-Era American South working together to collect and archive priceless samples of American folk music.
By 1936 Lead Belly found himself playing twice a night at the famous Apollo Theatre during the Harlem Renaissance, being recorded for TIMEnewsreels, having a bunch of awesome shit written about him in the People’s Daily (the official newspaper of the American Communist Party, which is slightly interesting considering he was not actually a communist) and getting his songs recorded by Columbia Records. His new-found fame was slightly derailed in 1939 when he was arrested for stabbing a guy during a knife-fight in Manhattan (this is documented knife-fight number five, for those of you keeping track at home), but once he got out of jail he jumped right back into action, getting a regular spot on a weekly CBS radio show where he played songs with guys like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Lead Belly was known as the ‘King of the Twelve-String’. Using a thumb pick to play the walking base line and finger-picking the rest, Lead accentuated his songs by stomping his foot and shouting out calls and cadences that he learned while working hard labor on the railroad line. His songs are interesting because Lead just tuned his guitar strings with one another rather than to the standard E, then adjusting his voice accordingly. He played shows every single day of his life, recorded a definitive collection of folk and blues songs, took requests at his shows and could instantaneously recall any of the 500 songs he knew from memory, and played whatever the hell he wanted whenever he felt like it. He never really saw any of the money he made, and lived basically in poverty in Harlem with his fourth wife, but I guess he was just happy doing what he liked to do- play music.
At the age of 53 Lead Belly registered for the Draft to enter World War II, but was never called up. He continued living it up and playing music, but during a European tour in 1949 (he was one of the first American folk artists to become popular in Europe) he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and forced to return home to the States. He died of ALS in December 1949 at the age of 61. One year after his death, Pete Seeger’s band, The Weavers, recorded a cover of Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight, Irene’. The song that got Lead Belly out of prison became a number one hit in 1950, earning the Weavers millions of dollars. A decade after that, Lead Belly’s arrangement of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ would be covered by some Brit band who are still living off the royalties of that one song.
There’s a life-sized statue of Lead Belly across from the courthouse in Shreveport, Louisiana and the state erected a marker at his grave site. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame early in the Hall’s life, and his music, which became insanely more popular after his death, has been covered by dozens of bands, all of whom cite the hard-drinking, hard-fighting Leadbelly as a major influence on their careers.
Part of the ‘Classic Album Reviews’ series (here) where we bring you something a little bit different to what you’re use to. To lost gems that have inspired and provoked folk music and musicians right up to modern celtic-punk music. Usually out of print so we can provide a free download link for you.