Lead Belly–Early Influence on Me
Lead Belly. Huddie William Ledbetter lived an eventful life, even if it wasn’t a particularly long one. He was born in 1888 and died in December 1949. Lead Belly was 61 when he died.
I don’t remember the first time I heard Lead Belly’s music. I knew Good Night, Irene, since I can remember. My folks were into jazz, Dylan, Beatles, and Stones. They didn’t seem to have a lot of blues in their collection when I was growing up. I was 15 when my music world exploded. In 1983, I was introduced to artists and bands that would seriously contribute to making me the person I am today. Gee, thanks guys. I owe you one.
One band was U2. I can’t thank those guys enough for the record War. Another was Oingo-Boingo. I was a trombone player in the high schooI band–you think I wouldn’t be all over “Who Do You Want to Be (Today)”? Another was Lead Belly. That was about the time I starting paying attention to the blues.
Lead Belly–Sometimes I’ll Forget About Him For a While
I go through phases musically. I’ll get on a Classic Rock jag for a while, then I’ll dig up some old New Wave records and cassettes and listen to them for a while. Once something catches my attention, I’ll usually go to youtube from there. I’ve been back on my Blues kick for a few days now.
Lead Belly–or “leadbelly”, if you like–was an iconic American folk and blues musician of the early 20th century. A few things he can be remembered for are his strong vocals, his uncanny skill on the twelve-string guitar, and of course, the songbook of Americana folk standards he left us.
Although Lead Belly usually played the twelve-string guitar, he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, concertina, and accordion. Some of his recordings, like in one of his versions of “John Hardy”–an American folk ballad–he is on the accordion. He sings a capella on other recordings with merely the accompaniment of his clapping hands or stomping foot.
By 1903, Lead Belly was already a singer and guitarist of some renown. He performed in St. Paul’s Bottoms–a notorious Red-Light District in nearby Shreveport, LA. Lead Belly’s own style of music began to take shape as he was being influenced by so many artists and musicians on Shreveport’s Fannin Street, which was a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottoms.
Lead Belly–Louisiana State Penitentiary
Ledbetter’s hot temper often got him into trouble with the law. In 1915 he was convicted of carrying a pistol and sentenced to do time on the Harrison County chain gang. He escaped, and found work in nearby Bowie County under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. In January 1918 he was imprisoned a second time, this time after killing one of his relatives in a fight over a woman.
In 1918 he was incarcerated in Sugar Land west of Houston, Texas, where he “probably” learned the song Midnight Special. In 1925 he was pardoned and released, having served nearly seven years–virtually all of the minimum of his seven-to-35-year sentence–after writing a song appealing to Governor Pat Morris Neff for his freedom. According to legend, Ledbetter had swayed Neff by appealing to his strong religious beliefs. That, in combination with good behavior–including entertaining by playing for the guards and fellow prisoners–was Ledbetter’s ticket out of prison.
Lead Belly–Meeting John and Alan Lomax
…and In 1930, Ledbetter was back in prison, after a summary trial, this time in Louisiana, for attempted homicide — he had knifed a white man in self-defense in a bar fight. It was there, three years later in 1933, that Lebbetter was “discovered” by folklorists John Lomax and Alan Lomax during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm. Deeply impressed by his vibrant tenor voice and huge repertoire, they recorded him on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned to record with new and better equipment in July 1934, all in all recording hundreds of his songs.
Lead belly–Released from Prison
On August 1,1934, Ledbetter was released again having served almost all of his minimum sentence. This time after the Lomaxes had taken a petition to Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen at Ledbetter’s urgent request. The petition was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”. It is an interesting story, but a prison official later wrote to John Lomax denying that Ledbetter’s singing had anything to do with his release from Angola. State prison records confirm that he was eligible for early release due to good behavior anyway. For a time, however, both Ledbetter and the Lomaxes believed that the record they had taken to the governor had hastened his release from Angola.
Lead Belly–How Did He Get That Nick-Name?
There are several somewhat conflicting stories about how Ledbetter got his famous nickname, though most believe that it was probably while he was in prison. Some say his fellow inmates dubbed him “Lead Belly” as a play on his last name and reference to his physical toughness; others say he earned the name after being shot in the stomach with shotgun buckshot. Another theory has it that the name refers to his ability to drink moonshine. Most agree that it was probably just a friendly corruption of his last name.
In 2008, Lead Belly was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame…