Huddie William Ledbetter (January 1888 – December 6, 1949) was an American folk musician, notable for his strong vocals, his virtuosity on the twelve string guitar, and the rich songbook of folk standards he introduced.
He is best known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly. Though many releases list him as "Leadbelly," he himself spelled it "Lead Belly." This is also the usage on his tombstone, as well as of the Lead Belly Foundation.
Although he most commonly played the twelve string, he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, concertina, and accordion. In some of his recordings, such as in one of his versions of the folk ballad "John Hardy", he performs on the accordion instead of the guitar. In other recordings he just sings while clapping his hands or stomping his foot. The topics of Lead Belly's music covered a wide range of subjects, including gospel songs; blues songs about women, liquor and racism; and folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding and dancing. He also wrote songs concerning the newsmakers of the day, such as President Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes.According to the 1900 census, Hudy (the spelling given in the census) is one of two listed children (the other is his stepsister, Australia Carr), of Wes and Sallie (Brown) Ledbetter of Justice Precinct 2, Harrison County, Texas. Wesley and Sallie were legally wed on February 26, 1888, shortly after Lead Belly's likely date of birth, even though they had lived together as husband and wife for years.the family moved to Leigh, Texas, when he was five. By 1903, Lead Belly was already a 'musicianer', a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport, Louisiana audiences in St. Paul's Bottoms, a notorious red-light district in the city. Lead Belly began to develop his own style of music after exposure to a variety of musical influences on Shreveport's Fannin Street, a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottoms.Lead Belly's volatile nature sometimes led him into trouble with the law. In 1915 he was convicted "of carrying a pistol" and sentenced to do time on the Harrison County chain gang, from which he miraculously escaped, finding work in nearby Bowie county under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. In January 1918 he was imprisoned a second time, this time after killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. In 1918 he was incarcerated in Sugar Land, Texas, where he probably learned the song "Midnight Special". In 1925 he was pardoned and released, having served seven years, or virtually all of the minimum of his seven-to-35-year sentence, after writing a song appealing to Governor Pat Morris Neff for his freedom. Lead Belly had swayed Governor Neff by appealing to his strong religious values. That, in combination with good behavior (including entertaining by playing for the guards and fellow prisoners), was Lead Belly's ticket out of jail. It was quite a testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (pardon by the governor was at that time the only recourse for prisoners, since in most Southern prisons there was no provision for parole). According to Charles K. Wolf and Kip Lornell's book, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (1999), Neff had regularly brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Lead Belly perform.
In 1930, Lead Belly was back in prison, after a summary trial, this time in Louisiana, for attempted homicide — he had knifed a white man in a fight. It was there, three years later, that he was "discovered" by musicologists John Lomax and his eighteen-year-old son Alan Lomax during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm. They were enchanted by Lead Belly's talent, passion, and singularity as a performer and recorded hundreds of his songs on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned to record in July of the following year (1934). On August 1, Lead Belly was released (again having served almost all of his minimum sentence), this time after the Lomaxes had taken a petition to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen at Lead Belly's urgent request. The petition was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, "Goodnight Irene." A prison official later wrote to John Lomax denying that Lead Belly's singing had anything to do with his release from Angola, and state prison records confirm that he was eligible for early release due to good behavior. A descendant of his has also confirmed this. For a time, however, both Lead Belly and the Lomaxes believed that the record they had taken to the governor had hastened his release from Angola.Lead Belly styled himself "King of the 12-string guitar," and despite his use of other instruments like the concertina, the most enduring image of Lead Belly as a performer is wielding his unusually large Stella twelve-string. This guitar had a slightly longer scale length than a standard guitar, slotted tuners, ladder bracing, and a trapeze-style tailpiece to resist bridge lifting.
Lead Belly played with finger picks much of the time, using a thumb pick to provide a walking bass line and occasionally to strum. This technique, combined with low tunings and heavy strings, gives many of his recordings a piano-like sound. Lead Belly's tuning is debatable, but appears to be a downtuned variant of standard tuning; more than likely he tuned his guitar strings relative to one another, so that the actual notes shifted as the strings wore. Lead Belly's playing style was popularized by Pete Seeger, who adopted the twelve-string guitar in the 1950s and released an instructional LP and book using Lead Belly as an exemplar of technique.
In some of the recordings where Lead Belly accompanied himself, he would make an unusual type of grunt between his verses, best described as "Haah!" Many of his songs, such as, "Looky Looky Yonder", "Take this Hammer", "Linin' Track" and "Julie Ann Johnson" feature this unusual vocalization. Lead Belly explained that, "Every time the men say 'haah', the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing", an apparent reference to prisoners' work songs. The grunt represents the tired deep breaths the men would take while working, singing and pausing in cadence with the work.Lead Belly's vast songbook, much of which he adapted from previous sources, has provided material for numerous folk, country, pop and rock acts since his time.Lead Belly appeared as a regular on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking CBS radio show, Back Where I Come From, broadcast nationwide. He also appeared in night clubs with Josh White, becoming a fixture in New York City's surging folk music scene and befriending the likes of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger, all fellow performers on Back Where I Come From. During the first half of the decade he recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress, and for Moe Asch (future founder of Folkways Records), and in 1944 headed to California, where he recorded strong sessions for Capitol Records. Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to see success in Europe.In 1949 was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. His final concert was at the University of Texas in a tribute to his former mentor, John A. Lomax, who had died the previous year. Martha also performed at that concert, singing spirituals with her husband.
Lead Belly died later that year in New York City, and was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, 8 miles (13 km) west of Blanchard, Louisiana, in Caddo Parish.