Born Huddie Ledbetter, January 21, 1885 (some sources say 1888), in the Caddo Lake district near Mooringsport, LA; died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease), December 6, 1949, in New York, NY; father was a farmer; married Martha Promise, January 21, 1935. Traveling musician in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, early 1910s; chauffeur and bodyguard with folklorists John and Alan Lomax, throughout the South, late 1934; concert performer, New York City, 1935-49; toured Europe, 1949; appeared on CBS-Radio show, Back Where I Come From. A film, Leadbelly, loosely based on Ledbetter's life, was released by Paramount Pictures in 1976.
The legendary "King of the Twelve-String Guitar," Huddie Ledbetter--known as "Leadbelly"--was one of the most famous and influential American folk artists of the twentieth-century. Many of his songs--including such classics as "Good Night, Irene," "The Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line," "Old Cottonfields at Home," "Gray Goose," and "Take This Hammer"--are standards of American folk music that have been performed and recorded by countless artists. A talented musician with a commanding stage presence and voice, Leadbelly captivated audiences in the 1930s and 1940s with his powerful songs, many of them rooted in his brutal experiences as a black man in the Deep South. Folk archivist Alan Lomax, who together with his father John introduced Leadbelly in the 1930s, was quoted by Ray M. Lawless in Folksingers and Folksongs in America as saying, "[Leadbelly's] steel voice, his steel arm on the twelve strings and his high-voltage personality captured audiences everywhere. More than any other singer, he demonstrated to a streamlined, city-oriented world that America had living folkmusic--swamp, primitive, angry, freighted with great sorrow and great joy."
The achievement of Leadbelly is remarkable, considering the turbulence of his personal life. He is perhaps as famous for his often violent temperament, over-indulgences in alcohol, numerous liaisons with women, bouts with the law, and prison terms, as he is for his music. A contributor to Rolling Stone wrote, "The legend of Leadbelly is by now inextricable from the man's life." He was born in the Deep South, and it was there that his musical talent was shaped. From his family he learned spirituals, work songs, and lullabies, and by the time he was ten, he could play an accordion given to him by an uncle. His father gave him his first guitar, and when he was sixteen, Leadbelly left his native Louisiana for a life of roaming, music, and working at various jobs. For the next few years he was exposed to various types of music and amassed a variety of songs--blues, jazz, cowboy songs, work songs--all the while frequenting brothels, getting in violent and bloody scrapes, and landing himself in prison. Leadbelly was, as Lawless comments, "a strange, enigmatic personality," and his life was also a testament to the conditions of the turn-of-the-century American South, where oppression and hostile treatment of blacks remained little changed from the days of the Civil War.
The experience of prison fed into Leadbelly's music, and his music twice helped him out of prison. In 1925, the governor of Texas commuted a thirty-year murder sentence for Leadbelly, after Leadbelly improvised a song on his own behalf for the governor. The lyrics, as George T. Simon reported in Best of the Music Makers, went: "I'se your servant compose this song. / Please Gov'nor Neff lemme go back home. / Please Honorable Gov'nor be good an' kind, / If you don' get a pardon, will you cut my time?" In 1930 Leadbelly was again sentenced to prison, this time in Louisiana for attempted murder. His music had, however, come to the attention of folklore archivist John Lomax, who obtained permission to record Leadbelly's songs for the Library of Congress Archives. Leadbelly's second term was commuted after he served three years, and he worked as chauffeur and bodyguard to John and Alan Lomax as they toured the South in search of folk material.
Leadbelly arrived with the Lomaxes in New York City in late 1934, and they arranged a series of concert appearances at northeastern colleges. Leadbelly was a hit with audiences and critics alike, and during the 1930s and 1940s, played to acclaim in New York City and throughout the rest of the United States. Frequently he performed with other folk giants of the day, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy. Lawless described Leadbelly's spell with audiences: "Leadbelly was ... a vigorous and compelling personality. Furthermore, he was a superb storyteller. It was his habit to introduce a song with a preliminary spoken story, so that the listener was in the mood when the song came. Thus, as the Lomaxes have pointed out, he was a true folk artist, transmuting the materials he found into something different, often something strange and beautiful, into a new song."
Leadbelly received praise in Europe also, and in the fall of 1949, he traveled there for a series of concerts. While on tour, he came down with symptoms of Lou Gehrig's Disease--the muscle-atrophying disease that would eventually kill him--and had to return to New York City. He died there on December 6, 1949, at the height of his musical career. Ironically, Pete Seeger and his group The Weavers had a huge hit with Leadbelly's "Good Night, Irene" shortly after his death. Seeger commented in Rolling Stone on the spirit of Leadbelly: "Some black people bad-mouthed him: 'Only white folks like us to sing like that.' But his power was such that if he ever got a chance, he changed their minds, because he sang some of the greatest protest songs of all time. He had the heart of a champion. I mean, when he went out onstage, he wanted to conquer that audience. And he did."
by Michael E. Mueller
- Selective Works
- During his lifetime, Leadbelly made numerous recordings, including those for the Library of Congress, 1934, American Record Corp., New York City, 1935, RCA Victor, June, 1940, and Capitol Records.
- Leadbelly Sings, Folkways, 1962.
- Ledbetter's Best, Capitol, 1963.
- Midnight Special, RCA Victrola, 1964.
- Good Night Irene, Allegro, 1964.
- Play-Party Songs, Stinson.
- Memorial, Stinson.
- Leadbelly Legacy, Folkways.
- Last Session, Folkways.
- Take This Hammer, Verve/Folkways, 1965.
- Leadbelly, Archive of Folk Song, 1966.
- Hands Off Her, Verve/Folkways, 1966.
- From the Last Sessions, Verve/Folkways, 1967.
- Legend, Tradition, 1970.
- Leadbelly, Columbia, 1970.
- Shout On, Folkways.
- Baggelaar, Kristin, and Donald Mitton, Folk Music: More Than a Song, Thomas J. Crowell, 1976.
- The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St.
- Martin's, 1983.
- Lawless, Ray M., Folksingers and Folksongs in America, 2nd edition, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1965.
- Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax, editors, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly (includes commentary by Leadbelly), Macmillan, 1936.
- Simon, George T., Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
- New York Times, December 7, 1949.
- Rolling Stone, February 11, 1988.
- Time, December 19, 1949.