Birth of the blues: Leadbelly
"Lead Belly is kind of the Mount Everest of Blues Singers".
Alex Haley – Author of 'Roots'
Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) was one of the first blues musicians to bridge the gap between black and white audiences and became one the first true blues superstars. The self-avowed, and essentially agreed upon by most fans and critics alike, 'King Of The Twelve String Guitar' was huge man of tremendous talent and was the prototype of the early blues man.
The exact date of his birth remains essentially unconfirmed but has generally been accepted to have been January 21st although the year has been reported as either 1885 or 1888 on a plantation in the small Louisiana parish of Caldo Lake near Morningsport. Despite the census records of the turn of the century which appear to confirm the location, there has been a bragging rights war between Texas and Louisiana over his birthplace for years. He was the only natural child of Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter although his parents did adopt a baby girl while Huddie was still a child. His father was a sharecropper and musician and his mother, part Cherokee, also worked the fields. By the time he was five years old, his family moved to Leigh, Texas. His first instrument was a small accordion given to him by his uncle, a Cajun concertina called a 'whirlwind' that he took to easily. Within a short amount of time, Huddie was able to play several songs.
A few years later, his father gave him a guitar and from that point on, it was rare for him to be seen without it. During the stretch of time near the turn of the century, Leadbelly began to play the streets for coins. By that time, he had grown to be a tall, very muscular young man with an exceptionally hot temper who supplemented his meager income by catching work in the fields and in construction. According to various biographies, he also picked up his nickname 'Lead Belly' around this time but the true meaning of the nickname remains something that is debated. According to some, it had to do with his work ethic, other claim to it because of his legendary prowess with the ladies and yet there are other stories that claim that his abdominal muscles were so well developed that a knife wielding attacker was unable to stab him in the stomach. One other story claims that he was once shot in the stomach with buckshot and emerged uninjured. Whatever the genesis of the name, it stuck with him to the end.
He was married by the time he was 15 years old and had fathered two children and had been playing at various brothels and saloons in Shreevesport, Louisiana in an area called St. Pauls Bottoms and on Fannin Street. Leadbelly claimed that this was where he got his first real musical education, being influenced by several different types of music and consequently began to develop his own style.
In 1916, he was jailed in Texas for a 'pistol violation' (which at the time meant simply carrying a pistol) and sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. He escaped shortly after arriving and hid out in the Dallas area under the name Walter Boyd. During this time, he hooked up with another legendary blues man, Blind Lemon Jefferson, serving as his 'lead boy' and collecting the tips for the musician. Until this point, Leadbelly had been playing the eight-string guitar but one day at a carnival he came upon a man playing a twelve string and he listened to him all night long. The following day Leadbelly went out and bought his own which became his primary instrument.
In 1918, Leadbelly was convicted again, this time for murder having killed a man named Will Stafford in a fight over a woman. He was sent to Sugarland, a segregated prison for blacks just outside of Houston, Texas to serve a twenty-year stretch. While in Sugarland, Leadbelly either learned or wrote "The Midnight Special", a prison song based on the story of the Midnight Special, a train that ran out of Houston and directly past Sugarland prison. "Oh the Midnight Special / Shine your ever lovin' light on me…" spoke to the tale that if the light from the train would shine on a lucky inmate, that inmate would soon be released. While incarcerated he would play and sing for the guards and the other inmates gaining favors among both groups. According to Irwin and Lyndon Stambler, Texas Governor Pat Neff would visit the prison often just to hear Leadbelly play. Eight years into his stretch, Leadbelly wrote a song for the Governor asking for his release.
"Please, Governor Neff, be good 'n kind
Have mercy on my great long time
I don't see to save my soul
If I don't get a pardon, try me on parole…
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I'd wake up in the mornin' and I'd set you free"
The song did the trick and Leadbelly was released from jail with a full pardon from the Governor. In the Deep South at that time, an inmates chance of securing parole were nil so the only way out of jail was either to serve your time or be granted a pardon by the Governor.
Leadbelly left Texas and headed for Lousiana where he picked up where he had left off, playing in saloons, on street corners and in brothels for tips. In 1930, Leadbelly was arrested again for almost killing another man and was sentenced this time to thirty years at the infamous Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Again Leadbelly relied on his songs and guitar playing to ease the time all the while learning more songs from his prison mates. While in Angola, Leadbelly was fortunate to have befriended John Lomax, the musicologist and field researcher for the Library of Congress. Lomax had been touring the Deep South looking for local music and folk songs and found that the prisons were a goldmine. Lomax was stunned by Leadbelly's vast repertoire, his booming voice and his incredible 12-string guitar skills and immediately set about recording a large number of Leadbelly's tracks. When he told Lomax of how he was released from prison in Texas because of a song, Lomax suggested that they try again. He and Leadbelly sat down and wrote a plea song to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen.
It didn't work the second time around, at least not initially. Lomax returned again to the Governor with the support of musicians, collectors and friends, eventually convincing Governor Allen to release Leadbelly. In 1934, Huddie Ledbetter walked out of Angola a free man. Later that year, Leadbelly arrived in New York City carrying a beat up green guitar that was held together with a piece of string. His initial performances in New York in January 1935 were met with great acclaim from fans and critics alike. Later that spring, he performed at Harvard University and again was welcomed with rousing applause. It was becoming clear that there was something to this mountain-sized man that struck the right tone in the left of center intellectual hotbed of New York and the Northeast.
Although he was starting to gain some recognition and success for his skills, personally he was still fighting demons. According to Alan Lomax (son of John Lomax), "He had a terrible violent nature. He drove my fathers car for him and my father handled his bookings and when he didn't have whiskey in him, Leadbelly could be a good companion. But when he was drunk or suffering the effects of a hangover, he was unapproachable. He finally pulled a knife on my father in the late 30's and my father got shuck of Leadbelly after that. I'm positive Leadbelly was guilty of everything he went to prison for and other things he got away with. There's no telling how many people he killed."
By the mid to late 30's, Leadbelly was sharing the stage with some of the greatest of the folk singers including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and other blues forefathers like Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White as was appearing regularly on national radio programs. Although he was gaining a large following, Leadbelly never really received the financial returns one would have thought.
Although Leadbelly mellowed somewhat during the latter period of his life, he still never managed to shake his violent nature. In 1949, Leadbelly spent time in New Yorks' Rikers Island prison, again for assault. His fame extended over seas allowing Leadbelly to tour Europe and Scandinavia. While touring Europe in 1949, Leadbelly came down with a disease that caused his muscles to atrophy. He went to Paris for treatment but the condition became unbearable. He returned to New York where he entered Bellevue Hospital. There was nothing that doctors could to do help him.
Leadbelly died in the hospital on December 6th, 1949 from complications from Lou Gehrigs disease.
Six months after he died, Pete Seeger and the Weavers released 'Goodnight Irene", a Leadbelly song that became a huge success for them. Seeger once said of Leadbelly, "If he had lived another year, I think he would have finally gotten the success he deserved."
Leadbelly is still considered perhaps the best 12-string blues/folk guitarists ever recorded and his range of influence continues to run through the ranks of music. Artists as varied as Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Creedence Clearwater Revivial, Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain have all acknowledge how deeply they were influenced by the self-avowed 'Master of The 12-String" and have recorded Leadbelly tracks and promoted his musical legacy.
Fifty years after his death, Leadbelly continues to be a larger than life figure in folk music and the blues.