Who Is Leadbelly?

Convicted of attempted murder, blues singer Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter was discovered in prison by folklorist John Lomax.

Some folks are born to make music. Others are born to fight. Apparently an African American blues singer who went by the odd name of "Leadbelly", was born to do both -- and the latter was almost his undoing.

Once Leadbelly was convicted of murder. He served his time. Then he was tried and convicted of attempted murder and went right back into prison. In fact, Leadbelly spent much of his life in jail. While he was in the Louisiana State Prison, he met folklorist John Lomax who was traveling through the South collecting folk music. Lomax used his influence to get the prisoner an early release. Then, some time later, Leadbelly tried to kill Lomax, too.

Yet, in spite of his pugnacious and sometimes violent personality, Leadbelly achieved great success, not only as a blues performer but as a songwriter as well.

Huddie William Ledbetter was born in 1885 on the Jeter Plantation, near Mooringsport, Louisiana. At the age of five, his family moved to Leigh, Texas. It was in Texas that little Huddie first became interested in music. He was encouraged by his Uncle Terrell who bought the boy an accordion. Later, Huddie learned to play the guitar.

By the age of 16, Huddie was on his own. Guitar slung over his back, he moved from place to place, laboring in whatever field he could find work. Most of his co-workers were also black and with similar backgrounds.

On sultry nights the workers would gather outside whatever migrant shack they were living in at the time, swap stories and sing. Young Huddie quickly absorbed the various musical styles of his associates, learned new songs, and became even more skilled on the guitar. To his repertoire he added primordial blues, spirituals, cowboy songs and prison hollers. He collected all of this with an eye toward one day performing. Huddie was determined that he was not going to make a career of working in the fields.

When he was 21, Huddie thought he was ready to make his living as a musician. He soon discovered, however, that this was easier said than done. Work was severely limited for a black musician in the South and his bookings were limited to bars and clubs that catered to African-Americans. Between low-paying gigs, Huddie continued to work as a laborer. In the meantime, he hung out with a rough crowd -- a hard boozing and profane aggregation who would pull a knife at the drop of a hat.

This suited Huddie just fine, but his inclination to violence often landed him in jail. During one of his imprisonments for assault -- in Texas in 1916 -- he escaped and spent the next two years on the run, assuming the name of "Walter Boyd". But then he killed a man in a fight, was convicted of murder, and was sentenced to 30 years of hard labor at Shaw State Prison Farm in Huntsville, Texas. He was released seven years later.

Unfortunately, prison failed to reform Huddie. In 1930, he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to the Louisiana State Prison. It was there that he met John Lomax.

Lomax was a scholar and a folklorist, touring the South for the Library of Congress, collecting ballads and folk songs. One of his most fertile sources were prison inmates. He met Huddie in 1933 and recorded some of his songs on the portable field equipment that he had brought with him. Lomax was impressed, not only with Huddie's driving guitar style, but also his diversity and knowledge of songs. The two became friends and Lomax promised Huddie that he would help get him an early release from prison.

As extra insurance, Lomax made a recording of a new song that Huddie had written, "Good Night, Irene". Along with his petition for an early release, Lomax and his son, Alan, took the record to Baton Rouge to see his friend, Governor Oscar K. Allen. Allen succumbed to the pressure and pardoned Ledbetter the next year.

Lomax took Huddie and his guitar north and gave him a job as his personal chauffeur. Then he introduced him to his northern musical friends. Huddie was a sensation with audiences at both colleges and in theaters, but he could barely command enough money to make a living singing. It was about this time that Huddie began calling himself "Leadbelly". There was no particular reason for the nickname -- he just liked the sound of it.

Leadbelly settled into his role of chauffeur and sometime performer. Lomax tried to expose his protege to the styles of other performers, but already Leadbelly had become a bit arrogant because of the attention he had received. Once he saw Cab Calloway at a Harlem theater and declared that he could "beat that man singing every time."

The notice paid him, especially by liberals in the north, convinced Leadbelly that he was not only a great musician but an intellectual as well. He became harder to deal with, more willful. Furthermore, Leadbelly's inclination toward violence had not mellowed a bit. After he threatened Lomax with a knife, the folk song collector would have nothing else to do with him.

Leadbelly's career as a singer, even without Lomax's assistance, continued to rise. His mentors were now Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger, son of folklorist Alan Seeger and a member of the folk group, The Weavers. Leadbelly seemed to have a great future ahead, but at the pinnacle of his fame tragedy struck.

Leadbelly was scheduled to make a tour of Europe in 1949. It was the first time that an American blues singer was to tour the continent. But while on tour, Leadbelly suddenly fell ill. Doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. Once the degeneration had set in, the decline was rapid. He died in New York that same year.

Six months later, Leadbelly's original song -- the one that had gotten him out of the Louisiana State Prison almost 15 years before -- "Goodnight, Irene", made number the one spot on the charts. The song was recorded by The Weavers and sold two million records.

"It's a pure tragedy that he didn't live another six months," Pete Seeger said later, "because all his dreams as a performer would have come true."

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