He is best known as Lead Belly or Leadbelly. Though many releases list him as “Leadbelly,” he himself spelled it “Lead Belly.” This is also the usage on his tombstone, as well as of the Lead Belly Foundation.
Although Lead Belly 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. In other recordings he just sings while clapping his hands or stomping his foot.
The topics of Lead Belly’s music covered a wide range of subjects, including gospel songs; blues songs about women, liquor and racism; and folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding and dancing. He also wrote songs concerning the newsmakers of the day, such as President Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, and Howard Hughes.
In 2008, Lead Belly was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Born Huddie William Ledbetter on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, the youngest of two children to Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter. He had an older sister named Australia.
Ledbetter was probably born in January 1888, though his grave marker lists his birth date as January 23, 1889. The 1900 United States Census lists Hudy William Ledbetter as 12 years old, and his birth date as January 20, 1888. The 1910 United States Census and the 1930 United States Census also list his birth date as January 20, 1888. In April 1942, Ledbetter filled out his World War II draft registration, listing his birth date as January 23, 1889.
His parents married on February 26, 1888, around one month after his birth, however had actually cohabitated together for several years.
When Ledbetter was five years old, the family settled in Bowie County, Texas.
By 1903, Lead Belly was already a ‘musicianer’, a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport audiences in St. Paul’s Bottoms, a notorious red-light district there. 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 Bottoms.
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 17 years old, and was, therefore, 15 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).
Influenced by the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912, he wrote the song “The Titanic”, which noted the racial differences of the time. “The Titanic” was the first song he ever learned to play on a 12-string guitar, which was later to become his signature instrument. He first played it in 1912 when performing with Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897–1929) in and around Dallas, Texas. The song is about champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson being denied passage on the Titanic due to his race (in point of fact, although Johnson was denied passage on a ship for being black, it was not the Titanic), with the iconic line, “Jack Johnson tried to get on board. The Captain, he says, ‘I ain’t haulin’ no coal!’ Fare thee, Titanic! Fare thee well!” Lead Belly noted that he had to leave out this verse when playing in front of white audiences.
Lead Belly’s volatile temper sometimes led 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, from which he escaped, finding 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, Will Stafford, 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”.[page needed] He served time in the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit) in Sugar Land. In 1925 he was pardoned and released, having served seven years, or 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. Lead Belly 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 Lead Belly’s ticket out of jail. It was quite a testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (pardon by the governor was at that time the only recourse for prisoners, since in most Southern prisons there was no provision for parole). According to Charles K. Wolf and Kip Lornell’s book, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (1999), Neff had regularly brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Lead Belly perform.
In 1930, Lead Belly was back in prison, after a summary trial, this time in Louisiana, for attempted homicide — he had knifed a white man in a fight. It was there, three years later (1933), that he was “discovered” by folklorists John Lomax and his then 18-year-old son 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 of the following year (1934), all in all recording hundreds of his songs. On August 1, Lead Belly 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 Lead Belly’s urgent request. The petition was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”. A prison official later wrote to John Lomax denying that Lead Belly’s singing had anything to do with his release from Angola, and state prison records confirm that he was eligible for early release due to good behavior. A descendant of his has also confirmed this. For a time, however, both Lead Belly and the Lomaxes believed that the record they had taken to the governor had hastened his release from Angola.
Among those who befriended Lead Belly while he was at Angola was the industrialist and inventor William Edenborn of Winn Parish, who became a regular prison visitor.
Bob Dylan once remarked, on his XM radio show, that Lead Belly was “One of the few ex-cons who recorded a popular children’s album.”
There are several, somewhat conflicting stories about how Ledbetter acquired his famous nickname, though the consensus is that it was probably while 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 homemade liquor (moonshine), which Southern farmers, black and white, used to make to supplement their incomes. Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy thought it came from a supposed tendency to lay about “with a stomach weighted down by lead” in the shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working. (This seems unlikely, unless it was ironic, given his well-known capacity for hard work.) It is likely that it is simply a corruption of his surname pronounced with a southern accent. Whatever its origin, he adopted the nickname as a pseudonym while performing, and it stuck. Regarding his toughness, it is also recounted that during his second prison term, another inmate stabbed him in the neck (leaving him with a fearsome scar that he subsequently covered with a bandanna), and he took the knife away and in turn almost killed his attacker with it.
Life after prison
By the time Lead Belly was released from prison, the United States was deep in the Great Depression and jobs were very scarce. In September 1934, in need of regular work in order to avoid having his release canceled, Lead Belly met with John A. Lomax and begged him to take him on as a driver. For three months he assisted the 67-year-old John Lomax in his folk song collecting in the South. (Alan Lomax was ill and didn’t accompany them on this trip.)
In December, Lead Belly participated in a “smoker” (group sing) at an MLA meeting in Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where John A. Lomax had a prior lecturing engagement. He was written up in the press as a convict who had sung his way out of prison. On New Year’s Day, 1935, the pair arrived in New York City, where John Lomax was scheduled to meet with his publisher, Macmillan, about a new collection of folk songs. The newspapers were eager to write about the “singing convict” and Time magazine made one of its first filmed March of Time newsreels about him. Lead Belly attained fame (though not fortune).
The following week, he began recording with ARC, the race records division of Columbia Records, but these recordings achieved little commercial success. Part of the reason for the poor sales may have been because ARC insisted on releasing only his blues songs rather than the folk songs for which he would later become better known. In any case, Lead Belly continued to struggle financially. Like many performers, what income he made during his lifetime would come from touring, not from record sales.
In February 1935, he married his girlfriend, Martha Promise, who came north from Louisiana to join him.
The month of February was spent recording his and other African-American repertoire and interviews about his life with Alan Lomax for their forthcoming book, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936). Concert appearances were slow to materialize, however, and in March 1935, Lead Belly accompanied John A. Lomax on a two-week lecture tour of colleges and universities in the Northeast, culminating at Harvard. These lectures had been scheduled before John Lomax had teamed up with Lead Belly.
At the end of the month, John Lomax decided he could no longer work with Lead Belly and gave him and Martha money to go back to Louisiana by bus. He gave Martha the money that Lead Belly had earned from three months of performing, but in installments, on the pretext that Lead Belly would drink it all if given a lump sum. From Louisiana, Lead Belly then successfully sued Lomax for the full amount and for release from his management contract with Lomax. The quarrel was very bitter and there were hard feelings on both sides. Curiously, however, in the midst of the legal wrangling Lead Belly wrote to John A. Lomax proposing that they team up together once again. It was not to be, however. The book about Lead Belly that the Lomaxes published in the fall of the following year, meanwhile, was a commercial failure.
In January 1936, Lead Belly returned to New York on his own without John Lomax for an attempted comeback. He performed twice a day at Harlem’s Apollo theater during the Easter season in a live dramatic recreation of the Time Life newsreel (itself a recreation) about his prison encounter with John A. Lomax, in which he had worn stripes, even though by this time he was no longer associated with Lomax.
Life magazine ran a three-page article titled, “Lead Belly - Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel,” in the April 19, 1937 issue. It included a full-page, color (rare in those days) picture of him sitting on grain sacks playing his guitar and singing. Also included was a striking picture of Martha Promise (identified in the article as his manager); photos showing Lead Belly’s hands playing the guitar (with the caption “these hands once killed a man”); Texas Governor Pat M. Neff; and the “ramshackle” Texas State Penitentiary. The article attributes both of his pardons to his singing of his petitions to the governors, who were so moved that they pardoned him. The article’s text ends with “he… may well be on the brink of a new and prosperous period.”
Lead Belly failed to stir the enthusiasm of Harlem audiences. Instead, he attained success playing at concerts and benefits for an audience of leftist folk music aficionados. He developed his own style of singing and explaining his repertoire in the context of Southern black culture, taking the hint from his previous participation in John A. Lomax’s college lectures. He was especially successful with his repertoire of children’s game songs (as a younger man in Louisiana he had sung regularly at children’s birthday parties in the black community). He was written up as a heroic figure by the black novelist, Richard Wright, then a member of the Communist Party, in the columns of the Daily Worker, of which Wright was the Harlem editor. The two men became personal friends, though Lead Belly himself was apolitical — if anything, a supporter of Wendell Willkie, the centrist Republican candidate, for whom he wrote a campaign song.
In 1939, Lead Belly was back in jail for assault, after stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan. Alan Lomax, then 24, took him under his wing and helped raise money for his legal expenses, dropping out of graduate school to do so. After his release (in 1940-41), Lead Belly appeared as a regular on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray’s groundbreaking CBS radio show, Back Where I Come From, broadcast nationwide. He also appeared in night clubs with Josh White, becoming a fixture in New York City’s surging folk music scene and befriending the likes of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger, all fellow performers on Back Where I Come From. 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. Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to see success in Europe.
In 1949 Lead Belly had a regular radio broadcast on station WNYC in New York on Sunday nights on Henrietta Yurchenko’s show. Later in the year he began his first European tour with a trip to France, but fell ill before its completion, and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. His final concert was at the University of Texas in a tribute to his former mentor, John A. Lomax, who had died the previous year. Martha also performed at that concert, singing spirituals with her husband.
Lead Belly died later that year in New York City, and was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, 8 miles (13 km) west of Blanchard, in Caddo Parish. He is honored with a life-size statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport.
Lead Belly styled himself “King of the 12-string guitar,” and despite his use of other instruments like the concertina, the most enduring image of Lead Belly as a performer is wielding his unusually large Stella twelve-string. This guitar had a slightly longer scale length than a standard guitar, slotted tuners, ladder bracing, and a trapeze-style tailpiece to resist bridge lifting.
Lead Belly played with finger picks much of the time, using a thumb pick to provide a walking bass line and occasionally to strum. This technique, combined with low tunings and heavy strings, gives many of his recordings a piano-like sound. Lead Belly’s tuning is debated, but appears to be a downtuned variant of standard tuning; more than likely he tuned his guitar strings relative to one another, so that the actual notes shifted as the strings wore. Lead Belly’s playing style was popularized by Pete Seeger, who adopted the twelve-string guitar in the 1950s and released an instructional LP and book using Lead Belly as an exemplar of technique.
Lead Belly tuned his guitar down five semitones from the standard guitar tuning (E-A-D-G-B-e, whereas his was tuned to B-E-A-D-F#-b, known as “B tuning” or “Baritone tuning”). When one tunes a guitar down this low, especially a twelve string, it makes the guitar “roar”. The Harmony Guitar Company (which had acquired the Stella brand, that of Lead Belly’s guitar) said it would be best to tune the guitar down low to prevent strain on its neck, and would also make it louder.
In some of the recordings where Lead Belly accompanied himself, he would make an unusual type of grunt between his verses, best described as “Haah!” Many of his songs, such as, “Looky Looky Yonder”, “Take this Hammer”, “Linin’ Track” and “Julie Ann Johnson” feature this unusual vocalization. Lead Belly explained that, “Every time the men say ‘haah’, the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing”, an apparent reference to prisoners’ work songs. The grunt represents the tired deep breaths the men would take while working, singing and pausing in cadence with the work.
Lead Belly’s vast songbook, much of which he adapted from previous sources, has provided material for numerous folk, country, pop and rock acts since his time. Examples:
* The Beach Boys recorded “Cotton Fields” as “Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song)” on their 1969 album 20/20.
* Bob Dylan, The Animals and later Hank Williams Jr. and Muse performed versions of “House of the Rising Sun.”
* Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded “Midnight Special” and “Cotton Fields” for their 1969 album Willy and the Poor Boys
* Abba recorded “Midnight Special” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton” as part of a medley for a German charity album in 1975. The medley is the only recording not written by the group that Abba ever released. It later reached a worldwide audience as the B-side of their 1978 single “Summer Night City”.
* Pete Seeger’s group, The Weavers, had a hit with “Goodnight Irene” the year after Lead Belly’s death
* Harry Belafonte covered “Sylvie”, attributed to Huddie Ledbetter and “Paul Campbell” (a pseudonym of The Weavers’s music publisher, Howard “Howie” Richmond, founder of TRO and Folkways Publishing, that Richmond used to claim author’s credit as well as publishing credit when copyrighting material in the public domain) for his album Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959).
* Van Morrison’s first performance as a child was “Good Night, Irene”, and he later recorded the song with Lonnie Donegan. In the title track to Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the lyrics that refer to Lead Belly: “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter/Showin’ pictures on the wall/” seem to be based on Morrison’s real life custom of carrying around a poster of Lead Belly and hanging it on the wall wherever he was living. This was revealed in a Rolling Stone interview in 1978, where Morrison refers Lead Belly as “my guru”. He also mentions Lead Belly in the lyrics to his 1982 semi-autobigraphical song “Cleaning Windows” alongside other blues musicians that inspired Morrison in his youth.
* Led Zeppelin adapted “Gallis Pole” (itself a variation of an old folk song, “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”) into “Gallows Pole” on Led Zeppelin III. Robert Plant, vocalist for Zeppelin, has also sung “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” live in concert.
* Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged concert ended with a version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, a song popularized by Lead Belly, whom frontman Kurt Cobain called his favorite performer.
* Johnny Cash’s “I got stripes” is a cover of “On a Monday” by Lead Belly
* Ram Jam recorded “Black Betty”
* Tom Russell’s “Jack Johnson” tells the story of the boxer Jack Johnson being denied passage on the Titanic, as previously recounted by Lead Belly in “Titanic”; the song’s lyric admits Russell “stole a line from Lead Belly” and its “Yonder comes Jack Johnson” refrain also borrows from “Midnight Special”
* Lead Belly has also been covered by Tom Petty, Dr John, Ry Cooder, Lonnie Donegan, Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, Odetta, Billy Childish (who named his son Huddie), Mungo Jerry, Paul King, Michelle Shocked, Tom Waits, Scott H. Biram, Ron Sexsmith, British Sea Power, Rod Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The White Stripes, The Fall, The Doors, Smog, Old Crow Medicine Show, Spiderbait, Meat Loaf, Ministry, Raffi, Rasputina, Rory Gallagher, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Deer Tick, X, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and Koerner, Ray & Glover, among many others.
Edited by ho-tep on 23 Jan 2011, 13:38
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