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Leadbelly Biography


Huddie William Ledbetter (January 23, 1888 - December 6, 1949) was an American folk and blues musician, notable for his clear and forceful singing, his virtuosity on the twelve string guitar, and the rich songbook of folk standards he introduced. He is best known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly (see below).
Although he most commonly played the twelve string, he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, concertina, and accordion. In some of his recordings, such as in one of his versions of the folk ballad "John Hardy", he performs on the accordion instead of the guitar.
The topics of Lead Belly's music covered a wide range of subjects, including gospel songs, blues songs about women, liquor, racism, folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding, dancing, and songs concerning the newsmakers of the day, such as President Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, the Scottsboro Boys, and multi-millionaire Howard Hughes.

Biography

Lead Belly's date of birth was once a matter of debate. The earliest year had been given at 1885, although other sources stated either 1888 or 1889. This debate no longer exists. According to the 1900 census, Hudy (the spelling given in the census) is one of two listed children (the other is his step-sister, Australia Carr), of Wes and Sallie (Brown) Ledbetter of Justice Precinct 2, Harrison County, Texas. Wesley and Sallie were legally wed shortly after Lead Belly's birth, on February 26, 1888, even though they had lived together as husband and wife for years. The 1900 census, differing from the usual census in that it lists the month and year of birth, rather than just the age, states the birth year of 'Hudy' Ledbetter to be 1888 and the month listed as January; Huddie's age is listed as twelve. The census of 1910 and the census of 1930 (Huddie was an inmate at the time of this census) confirm 1888 as the year of birth. It is also debated on what day he was born. The most common date given is January 20, but other sources suggest he was born on January 21 or 29. None of these 'sources', in turn, document their sources. The only document we have that Huddie Ledbetter, himself, helped fill out is his World War II Draft registration in 1942. He gives his birthdate as January 23, 1889. It is a common occurrence for people to grow up not knowing or remembering their birth-year; it is also common to miscalculate one's birthyear. Time in prison and periods of time on the road without celebrations would have likely been additional cause for confusion for Lead Belly in remembering his age. People seldom forget their birthday, however. There does not appear to have been any reason for Lead Belly to have written January 23 on such an important document if he did not believe it to be accurate. Thus, according to the best genealogical evidence, he was born January 23, 1888.

Early Life

In any case, Lead Belly was born to Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter as Huddie William Ledbetter in a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, but the family moved to Leigh, Texas, when he was five. By 1903, Lead Belly was already a 'musicaner', a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport, Louisiana audiences in St. Paul's Bottom, a notorious redlight district in the city. Lead Belly began to develop his own style of music after exposure to a variety of musical influences on Shreveport's Fannin Street, a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottom.
At the time of the 1910 census, Lead Belly, still officially listed as 'Hudy', was living next door to his parents with his first wife, Aletha "Lethe" Henderson, who at the time of the census was seventeen years old, and was, therefore, fifteen at the time of their marriage in 1908. It was also there that he received his first instrument, an accordion, from his uncle, and by his early 20s, after fathering at least two children, he left home to find his living as a guitarist (and occasionally, as a laborer). Lead Belly would later claim that as a youth he would "make it" with 8 to 10 women a night.

Prison years

Lead Belly's boastful spirit and penchant for the occasional skirmish sometimes led him into trouble with the law, and in January 1918 he was thrown into a Dallas, Texas prison for the second time, this time after killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight. It is said that he was released seven years into his twenty year sentence after writing a song appealing to Governor Pat Morris Neff for his freedom. Lead Belly had swayed governor Pat Neff by appealing to Neff's strong religious values. That, dubbed in combination with good behavior (Including entertaining by playing for the guards and fellow prisoners), was Ledbetter's ticket out of jail.
In 1930, Lead Belly was back in prison, this time in Louisiana for attempted homicide. It was there, three years later, that he was "discovered" by musicologists John and Alan Lomax, who were enchanted by his talent, passion and singularity as a performer, and recorded hundreds of his songs on portable recording equipment for the Library of Congress. The following year Lead Belly was once again pardoned, this time after a petition for his early release was taken to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen by the Lomaxes (it was on the other side of a recording of one of his most popular songs, "Goodnight Irene"). But records show he was released due to good behavior, and mention nothing of the song.
Ledbetter first acquired his famous nickname while he was in prison; his fellow inmates dubbed him "Lead Belly" as a play on his last name and a testament to his physical toughness. For instance, when one of the inmates tried to stab him in the neck (which left him with a scar) during his second prison term, he took the knife away and almost killed his attacker with it in turn. He then used the nickname as a pseudonym when he was recording, and the name stuck ever since.
[edit]Life after prisonLead Belly playing an accordion.
Indebted to the Lomaxes, Lead Belly allowed Alan to take him under his wing, and in late 1934 migrated to New York City with him, where he attained fame, though not fortune. In 1935 he married Martha Promise and began recording with the American Record Corporation (ARC), but achieved little commercial success with these records. Part of the reason for the poor record sales may have been because ARC insisted he record blues songs rather than the folk for which he was better known, in any case, Lead Belly continued to struggle financially. In 1939 he was back in jail for assault.
Upon his release in 1940, Lead Belly returned to a surging New York folk scene, and befriended the likes of Woody Guthrie and a young Pete Seeger. During the first half of the decade he recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress, and for Moe Asch (future founder of Folkways Records), and in 1944 headed to California, where he recorded strong sessions for Capitol Records. In 1949 he began his first European tour, but fell ill before its completion, and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Lead Belly died later that year in New York City, and was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, 8 miles west of Blanchard, Louisiana, in Caddo Parish.





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