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Leadbelly Profile

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Huddie Leadbelly Ledbetter

Huddie & Martha Ledbetter, photo from The Lomax Collection

Photo courtesy the Library of Congress

Leadbelly Profile:

Born: January 20, 1888 in Mooringsport LA

Died: December 6, 1949 in New York NY

Born as Huddie Ledbetter in Louisiana, Leadbelly’s music and tumultuous life would have a profound effect on both blues and folk musicians alike. Like most performers of his era, Leadbelly’s musical repertoire extended beyond the blues to incorporate ragtime, country, folk, prison songs, popular standards, and even gospel songs. Leadbelly performed for a while with his friend Blind Lemon Jefferson in Texas, honing his skills on the twelve-string guitar, but it is his reinvention of traditional folk and blues songs, carried on from the African-American oral tradition, for which he is best known.

Singing For His Freedom

Throughout his life, Ledbetter's temper often landed him in trouble, and after killing a man in Texas in 1917, he was sentenced to an extended term in the notorious state prison in Huntsville, where he was given his "Leadbelly" nickname. While jailed in Huntsville, Leadbelly wrote and sang a song for the governor that led to his early release in 1925. Unfortunately, a few years after his release from prison in Texas, the singer was convicted on an assault charge and sentenced to a term in Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary.

Library of Congress

It was while in Angola that Leadbelly met and recorded for Library of Congress musicologists John Lomax, and his son Alan, who came to the prison in 1933 looking for folk songs to document. This first Leadbelly recording session has never been commercially released, although songs from a second session in the summer of 1934 have appeared on various compilations.

After his release from prison, Leadbelly went to work as John Lomax's chauffer, travelling with him to other prisons in search of folk music. Leadbelly continued to perform and record throughout the 1930s, often under the aegis of the Lomaxes. He eventually relocated in New York City, where he found favor on the city’s folk scene spearheaded by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

After his death from ALS in 1949, Leadbelly songs like "Midnight Special," "Goodnight, Irene" and "The Rock Island Line" became hits for artists as diverse as the Weavers, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and Ernest Tubb.

Recommended Albums: Midnight Special features incredible raw performances of many of Leadbelly's best known songs, many captured in 1934 by the Lomaxes.

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