A Hidden Figure of Folk Music

The Roots of Folk Music

African American folk music is a product of the transatlantic slave trade. Africans were ripped away from their native land and dispersed into foreign places. Even through their enslavement, Africans stayed true to their heritage and traditions. Black artists have played an enormous part in moving forward the history of American Folk music. One hidden figure of this genre is the legendary Lead Belly. 


Lead Belly, whose real name is Huddie William Ledbetter, was a Black Folk artist, songwriter, and guitarist. He had the great ability to perform songs in a variety of styles, which made him a legend. Lead Belly was musically inclined at a young age and eventually focused on the guitar, which was a catalyst in his developing music career. He attended school in Texas until around age 13, playing in a school band, and then worked the land with his father. 

Music Career

Lead Belly was one of the most diverse figures in American folk music. After spending time in and out of prison, he was discovered in 1933 by John and Alan Lomax. Gaining early release from prison, Lead Belly moved to New York where he became popular in left-wing folk music circles. Lead Belly’s catalog drew from an extraordinary range of folk music, including prison work songs, field call and responses and blues. The topics of Lead Belly’s music were wide ranging, including songs about women, cowboys and prison. Some of his most famous songs include “Good Night Irene,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” and “Midnight Special.” 

His Legacy

Lead Belly’s legacy is extraordinary. His recordings reveal his mastery of a great variety of song styles and his catalog includes more than 500 songs. His rhythmic guitar playing and unique vocals make his body of work memorable. His influence on later musicians was extraordinary. His tenacity to overcome life’s obstacles are also on the long list of Belly’s legacies. 

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