Lead Belly

  February 13, 2022   Read time 3 min
Lead Belly
Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbettercan certainly be counted among the twentieth century’s most outstanding and influential folk musicians. Born in Louisiana in 1888, he led a checkered career for some years, while learning to play the twelve-string guitar and concertina.

He traveled briefly with the blues performer Blind Lemon Jefferson in Dallas, Texas, and soon after was convicted of murder and served almost seven years in a Texas state prison, being released in 1925 when pardoned by the governor. He continued his performing until 1930 when another crime sent him to prison in Angola, Louisiana, where he was recorded by John and Alan Lomax in 1933, as they traveled around the South for the Library of Congress. They again recorded him on a return visit in 1934, and soon after he was released and began working for John Lomax as his driver. He was not particularly a blues performer, but a powerful, eclectic musician who had a wide repertoire, including popular tunes. Some of his songs became influential, such as “Gray Goose,” “Midnight Special,” “Easy Rider,” “C.C. Rider,” and “Rock Island Line.”

John Lomax brought him into the recording studio in New York in early 1935, where he recorded for the ARC label, which issued a few singles that sold poorly. He also recorded for the Library of Congress, and then Musicraft, which issued his first 78 album, Negro Sinful Tunes, in 1939. John and Alan Lomax had already published his musical autobiography, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly in 1936, when Lead Belly was getting much publicity, including a Life magazine feature in 1937. He had become involved with New York City’s left-wing folk community, which included Aunt Molly Jackson, and soon Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Victor issued The Midnight Special and Other Prison Songs in 1940, but his commercial appeal seemed weak, and so Lead Belly switched to Moses Asch’s Asch label, which resulted in a series of albums, including Work Songs of the U.S.A. Sung by Leadbelly, Play Party Songs Sung by Leadbelly, and others on his subsequent Disc label. Lead Belly did most of his commercial recording for Asch, which would later be issued on his Folkways label.

Lead Belly’s life and career during the 1940s, until his death in late 1949 from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), was not particularly successful, as he was bypassed by more commercial performers, such as Josh White and Burl Ives. He was mainly supported by his friends Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, and others on the political left. He also played for college students and at the Village Vanguard, a club in Greenwich Village, and even in Paris just before his death, but he had few commercial records by this time. In 1950 the Weavers had a major hit with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” and they also recorded his arrangement of “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and other songs, as did many others. A number of his songs, particularly “Rock Island Line,” which became a hit for Lonnie Donegan in 1956, played a vital role in the skiffle craze in England.

By the folk revival of the 1960s Lead Belly had become an icon, his songs were widely known, and his recordings easily available on Folkways albums. In the 1990s Smithsonian Folkways would begin to issue a stream of CD compilations, including the three-disc Lead Belly Legacy series, and another covering Lead Belly Sings for Children, while Rounder Records released all of his original Library of Congress recordings for Alan Lomax. Other labels have also produced Lead Belly CDs, making his extensive output readily available. In 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Woody Guthrie. As his biographers Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, in The Life and Legacy of Leadbelly, have well summarized his legacy: “Leadbelly was the first authentic traditional singer to go before the American people and make them aware of the rich vein of folk music that lay just beneath the surface of the hard bedrock of twentieth century industrial society. He also opened the door to the wonderous and potent world of African American folk culture and shared it with millions through the shaping power of his imagination.” Music Hound Folk: The Essential Album Guide is more succinct (Walters and Mansfield 1998): “While he is recognized as a seminal blues artist, Leadbelly was also one of the greatest repositories of American folk music.”

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