Famed musician Lead Belly was born in Mooringsport, Louisiana, in the late 1880s. Lead Belly was imprisoned in Texas for murder in 1918. According to tradition, he won his early release in 1925 by singing a song for the governor of Texas. Lead Belly was imprisoned again, for attempted murder, in 1930. There, he was “discovered” by folklorists John Lomax and Alan Lomax, who were collecting songs for the Library of Congress. Subsequently, he published 48 songs.
Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly,” was born in the late 1880s (the date is uncertain) in a country setting in northwest Louisiana. He attended school in Texas until around age 13, playing in a school band, and then worked the land with his father.
He began learning how to play musical instruments as a youth and eventually focused on the guitar, performing as a teenager at local dances. At age 16, he headed out across the Deep South, settling in Shreveport, Louisiana, for two years, where he supported himself as a musician. Around 1912, now living in Dallas with his new wife, Ledbetter met Blind Lemon Jefferson, an accomplished street musician, and the pair began playing together. It was at this point that Ledbetter concentrated on what would become his signature instrument: the 12-string guitar.
In December 1917, Ledbetter was arrested and charged with murder and was found guilty. Prison is where it seems he picked up the nickname Lead Belly. In early 1924, only a few years into a 20-year sentence, Lead Belly sang for Texas governor Pat Neff a song in which he asked for a pardon. A year later, Neff pardoned Lead Belly and he was a free man.
Only five years later, Lead Belly was involved in a stabbing incident that led to “assault with intent to murder” charges and another prison sentence. Budget issues causes by the Great Depression allowed him to apply for early release, which he did, and the sitting governor approved the application in 1934. (He also sang a song to this governor, pleading for release.)
The Musician Moves North
Lead Belly subsequently ended up in New York and tried to establish himself as a professional musician. It worked to an extent, as his music was embraced by the fervent left wing, and Lead Belly found himself rubbing elbows with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Unfortunately, in March 1939, Lead Belly was arrested in New York for stabbing a man and served an eight-month sentence. After his release, 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. He also recorded an album called The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs before moving to the West Coast a few years later.
While in Los Angeles, he signed with Capitol Records and finally began some serious recording. Even as he achieved success he developed health issues, though, and in 1949 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He toured a little after the diagnosis, but the ALS caught up with him for good in December, and he died at age 61.
He is best remembered for songs such as “Goodnight, Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” “The Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields” and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.