December 6, 1949 – Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter sometime around January 20, 1888/89 on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. The 1900 United States Census lists “Hudy Ledbetter” as 12 years old, born January 1888; and the 1910 and 1930 censuses also give his age as corresponding to a birth in 1888. The 1940 census lists his age as 51 with information supplied by wife, Martha. However, in April 1942, Ledbetter filled out his World War II draft registration with a birth date of January 23, 1889, and a birthplace of Freeport, Louisiana. His grave marker has the date on his draft registration.
His life was as colorful as the confusion on dates. He was notable for his clear, forceful singing and his virtuosity on the twelve string guitar. Pre-dating blues, he was an early example of a folksinger whose background had brought him into direct contact with the oral tradition by which folk music was handed down on the Southern Plantations.
Lead Belly first tried his hand at playing music when he was only two years old. As a young man he was introduced to the guitar by his Uncle Terrell Ledbetter and from that moment on he was electrified by the guitar. He mastered that instrument and just about any instrument he laid his hands on. He learned to play the accordion, mandolin and piano. Which gave him a wide knowledge of various musical instruments and rhythm.
Around 1912, he met the young street musician Blind Lemon Jefferson, five years his junior, and the two teamed up to play around the Dallas area for several years. It was during this period, he switched from the six-string to the 12-string guitar. It has been said that one day Lead Belly witnessed a Mexican guitarist playing the twelve string guitar which struck his interest in mastering the unusual instrument.
After the 8th grade, he quit school and, by the time he was 14 years old, he was a popular musician and singer in the weekend “sukey jumps” and “juke joints.” He later became known as the king of the twelve-string guitar and “Stella” as he affectionately called his guitar became his ticket to life and his freedom. Leadbelly was passionate about his love of music. It was his way of expressing what was written on his heart and soul. This love of music led him to leave his father’s farm at an early age to pursue his music. Huddie traveled the southwest playing his guitar and working as a laborer when he had to. He was legendary for picking 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad tracks.
Lead Belly once said, “When I play, the women would come around to listen and their men would get angry.” In 1918, he fought and killed a man in Dallas and was sentenced to thirty years to be served in the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. In 1925, he wrote a song asking Governor Pat Neff for a pardon. Neff, who had promised at his election never to pardon a prisoner, broke his promise and set Huddie Ledbetter free. Back on the road with many new songs he had learned or written at Huntsville, Huddie again found enthusiastic audiences throughout the south. But, as the center of admiring crowds, he was again the target of envy and jealousy. In 1930, after a fight at a party, which was normal in the Jim Crow south he was sentenced to another prison term in the infamous Angola Farm prison plantation in Louisiana. In a way, this was a stroke of luck, because he was discovered by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress. John Lomax and his son Allen brought him to New York where he played on college campuses like Harvard, Priceton, NYU and the list goes on. He was received with great acclaim.
Shortly thereafter Lead Belly relocated to New York, where he forged a reputation on the folk circuit, making personal appearances, recording for a variety of labels and doing radio work. In the early 40s he performed with Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Woody Guthrie. In 1948 Lead Belly cut, with the aid of the newly invented long playing record, what would later become known as his Last Sessions, a definitive document of The Life and Music of the King of the Twelve-String Guitar. Lead Belly enjoyed national recognition as a blues and folk musician and singer. Lead Belly felt his music and talent were gifts from God. His songs could not be put into one category. He wrote children’s songs, field songs, ballads, square dance songs, prison songs, folk songs, and blues.
Lead Belly was a man whose life experienced rather extreme ups and downs. Good or bad, Lead Belly told the world about those things through his songs. Lead Belly’s fame and success continued to increase until he fell ill while on a European Tour. Tests revealed that he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949. This disease destroyed all the muscles in his body giving him little opportunity to fully play the guitar without pain. He died on December 6, 1949 and never got to fully enjoy the fruits of his music. In which Lead Belly’s song catalog is consisted of well over 500 songs. The most famous were Midnight Special, Cotton Fields, Boll Weevil, Kisses Sweeter than Wine, Rock Island Line, and many, many more.
After Lead Belly’s death, the Weavers, a folk quartet sent “Good Night, Irene” to #1 on the charts, which became the most famous song in his repertoire. That song sold a million copies and was recorded also six months later by Pete Seeger. His music still has a great influence on some of the greatest artists both black and white. Artists like The Beetles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Little Richard,have all expressed their early studies of music to Lead Belly’s records.
He died from Lou Gehrig’s disease on Dec 6, 1949 at the age 64.