Introduction: Huddie William Ledbetter, known more widely as Lead Belly, was a folklore and blues legend. He is most known for his powerful vocals, his mastery of the twelve string guitar, and the many popular folk songs and the strong influence he had in folk music.
Background: Lead Belly was born on January 20,1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was the youngest of the family of four. His parents were Wesley Ledbetter and Sallie Brown and he had an older sister named Australia Ledbetter. He attended school in texas until the age of thirteen. He later moved at the age of 16 to Shreveport, Louisiana where he supported himself as a young musician for two years. In 1912 he moved to Dallas where he ended up meeting Blind Lemon Jefferson. After this his career in music blew up.
Criminal Past: In 1918 he was first arrested and convicted of killing a man while in a fight and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. However in 1925 he received a pardon after singing a ballad for the governor Neff. In 1930 he got into a fight at a party & was sentenced to another prison term in Angola Farm Prison Plantation. While there he got discovered by Folklorists John & Alan Lomax, who were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress. Unfortunately later on in March 1939, he was arrested in New York for a stabbing . He was then charged and sentenced to eight months in prison. After serving his terms Lead Belly appeared on two radio series—”Folk Music of America” and “Back Where I Come From”—and landed his own short weekly radio show. Because he was in and out of prison much it’s often said that was where he got his nickname Lead Belly.
Music Career: Ever since a very young age Lead Belly was very proficient in music. His first instrument that he learned how to play was the diatonic accordion. He then went to learn how to play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and what he would now be considered his signature instrument , the 12 string guitar.He was influenced by the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 and he wrote the song “The Titanic” which expressed the racial differences of the time. “The Titanic” was the first song he ever learned to do on a 12-string guitar. Some of his best-known songs are “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Goodnight Irene.” He later died December 6,1949 of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because of his influence in folk music his songs were often covered by many artists such as the Beach boys, Johnny Cash, Odetta and many more. His songs were even covered by a folk group named The Weavers who helped to make “Goodnight Irene”become the number one hit in the united state back in 1950. In 2008, Lead Belly was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.Also A postage stamp was issued in Lead Belly’s honor during a ceremony at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The largest existing collection of Lead Belly’s recordings is now in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.