Louisiana is known for many things including Mardi Gras, Cajun cooking, bayous, and music. Today I want to share one of north Louisiana’s most influential musicians. His name is Huddie William Ledbetter but he is better known as Lead Belly.
Born on the Jeter Plantation in Mooringsport, Louisiana in the late 1800’s, Lead Belly was a folk-blues singer, songwriter and the King of the 12-String Guitar. He led a colorful life that included time in prison.
He attended school in Texas until around the age of 13 when he left to work the land with his father. When he was 16, he settled here in Shreveport, Louisiana where he supported himself as a musician. He would perform on Fannin Street, a notorious red-light district and it was there he began to develop his own style of music. From here he moved to Dallas where he met Blind Lemon Jefferson, an accomplished street musician. The two began playing together and it was during this time that Lead Belly concentrated on perfecting his signature instrument, the 12-string guitar.
He served his first stint in prison for the murder of a family member in a dispute over a woman. Legend has it that he was released after serving the minimum sentence of seven years after he wrote and sang a song for the governor asking for his freedom. His second incarceration was in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison after he was convicted of stabbing a man. It was during this time that he was discovered by folklorists and musicologists father and son team, John and Alan Lomax. They were so impressed with Lead Belly’s astounding talent that they recorded his songs for the Library of Congress. A year later they returned to Angola with better recording equipment to record hundreds of his songs including, “Goodnight Irene.” The Lomax’s petitioned to have Lead Belly released from prison and that was granted one month later.
In order to maintain his freedom, he had to secure a job so the elder Lomax hired him as a driver. As Lomax gave lectures at different universities, Lead Belly would perform in local establishments. The word of his talent quickly spread and he was dubbed “the singing convict” by the newspapers. His popularity was noticed in New York City and he soon began recording for the American Record Corporation. He recorded over 40 songs with the label but they only released 5 blues songs and none of them are the songs for which he became famous.
It wasn’t long after Lomax finished his college tours that Lead Belly found himself back in Louisiana. He still felt the pull of New York and eventually made his way back. While performing at the Apollo Theater, he garnered a three-page spread in Life Magazine. This article made him popular with folk artists instead of the soul and blues crowd. After another run-in with the law, Alan Lomax once again helped by giving Lead Belly a regular spot on the CBS radio show, “Back Where I Come From” with his co-host, Nicholas Ray. This was how he quickly became a fixture in the Big Apple’s burgeoning folk scene. He became friends with folk singers Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Lead Belly moved to the West Coast in 1944 and lived there for two years. Signing with Capitol Records in Los Angeles, he went on to record a series of singles. It was in 1948 that he began suffering unexplained bouts of numbness in his legs. In May of 1949, he toured France but his health forced him to see a doctor who gave him the diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He returned back to the U.S. and was able to manage a few more performances. He passed away at age 61 in December 1949.
It was after his death that Lead Belly reached most of his success. In 1950, his song “Goodnight Irene” was recorded by the folk group, the Weavers including Pete Seeger and other musicians with Lead Belly. It became a #1 pop hit and that was just the beginning. His influence has impacted all aspects of music and landed him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Louisiana Music hall of Fame. Many of his songs were recorded by other groups and became hits. You will recognize many from this list below.
Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter is buried at Shiloh Baptist Church where we visited over the weekend. His grave is littered with guitar picks placed there by musicians who are still being influenced by his incredible talent. Shreveport has paid tribute to him by not only renaming the area around Fannin Street as Ledbetter Heights but his statue stands in front of the downtown library.
You don’t learn the blues, you live the blues.
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