Lead Belly (1885-1949), born Huddie Ledbetter, revolutionized the folk and blues genres by turning personal pain and violence into unmistakable, guitar-driven song. Growing up Lead Belly led a musical life, playing the harmonica, accordion, 6- and 12-string guitar, and bass while learning songs through oral tradition.
In his early thirties he was convicted of murder and sent to prison in Texas. Legend has it that after being locked up for nearly a decade, Lead Belly won an early release by singing for the governor of Texas during his visit to the prison. With this liberation came a return to a transient life of violence and melody. Five years after his release from a Texas prison for murder brought another stint in an Angola, Louisiana prison farm—little did he know, it would bring his big break.
While folklorists John and Alan Lomax were travelling and collecting songs for the Library of Congress, they discovered Lead Belly’s inimitable talent. The Lomaxes campaigned for and won his release in 1934, and from there he went on to tour and frequently record both locally and commercially. His first commercial recordings were fostered by the American Record Corporation, who encouraged Lead Belly to sing the blues instead of his typical folk style of playing. After moving to New York City and spending a year in jail, he experienced some of his largest successes: collaborating with Woody Guthrie, performing on WNYC radio, and making an appearance in a short film.
In 1949, Lead Belly was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gherig’s Disease) before he was able to complete a European tour. His final concert took place at the University of Texas at Austin that same year, honoring John Lomax. Since his death in 1949, he has inspired everyone from Kurt Cobain to Bob Dylan.
“Lead Belly.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Leadbelly.
“Lead Belly.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_Belly.