In 1942, Woody Guthrie purchased a copy of Negro Sinful Songs, the Musicraft record album by his friend and colleague Lead Belly, as a gift for his wife. A true poet, he inscribed at follows:
“The gift I’d buy, had to be better than perfume and stronger than metal. It had to be the simplicity of a whole people and the dignity of a race, the honesty of a saloon and the frenzy of a church. So when I heard Lead Belly’s voice on these records, I thought here is the surprise I’ve been looking for. Surprise!“
Now, as Guthrie honored his wife with the album, we pay tribute to the man himself: Huddie Ledbetter—the legendary Lead Belly. I’d pursued this set for quite a long while. It didn’t come cheap, but I have to say, hokey as it might sound, I really am profoundly moved by these records. I hope that you will be, too.
Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly. Later pressings switched to a (less evocative) design featuring a portrait of Lead Belly, rather than this one of black sharecroppers.
The exact date and year of Huddie William Ledbetter’s birth are uncertain—the date is most often given as January 20, believed to have been in 1888 or ’89 (the latter is officially offered by the Lead Belly Foundation), January 29, 1885 has also been suggested—but it is known that he was born on the Jeter Plantation in northwestern Louisiana, close to Mooringsport, the son of sharecroppers Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter. When Huddie was five years old, the Ledbetters bought a piece of land in East Texas and moved across the state border, starting a farm of their own. His first instrument was the accordion (or “windjammer” as he called it), and his uncle Terrell introduced him to the guitar not long after. By the turn of the century, Huddie was an accomplished musicianer. When his father would travel into Shreveport to sell their crops, Huddie would “put on long pants” and go down on Fannin Street to play his music. He set out on his own in his early twenties, making his living as an itinerant songster. In the early part of the 1910s, Ledbetter was in Dallas, playing the blues with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Deep Ellum. He reportedly became enamored with the twelve-string guitar after seeing a Mexican musician performing with one.
In 1918, Ledbetter killed a man in a fight over a woman in Dallas (he was later quoted as saying, “a man tried to cut my head off.”), and was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in Huntsville, Texas. With no possibility for parole, he wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff, appealing for a pardon—”[If I] had you, Governor Neff, like you got me, I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set your free.” In his final days in office, Neff granted his pardon on January 15, 1925, Ledbetter having served six years, seven months and eight days of his sentence. In 1930 however, Ledbetter was back behind bars after a fight with three white men in Mooringsport, Louisiana. The sheriff saved him from a lynch mob, but he was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Angola Prison Farm At some point during one of Ledbetter’s prison stays, he acquired the nickname “Lead Belly”. Exactly how it came to be is uncertain, but the name stuck, and he used throughout all of his professional musical career. Three years into his sentence at Angola—in July of 1933—the prison was visited by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan, who were traveling the South with a trunkload of recording equipment to capture the folk music of America for the Library of Congress. There, they captured Lead Belly’s voice on record for the first time. Lomax returned the following year, eager to record Lead Belly’s extensive repertoire of folk songs; Lead Belly was eager to find someone to deliver his petition for a pardon to Governor O.K. Allen. Following his release, Lead Belly returned to John A. Lomax, asking that he allow him to assist in his travels, lest his release be rescinded. Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly accompanied him in his travels from September until the end of 1934.
Lomax, with Lead Belly along, arrived back in New York City around the New Year of 1935, and Lead Belly achieved notoriety, appearing in a March of Time newsreel and radio program made in celebration Lomax’s greatest discovery. Ledbetter married his sweetheart, Martha Promise, that January, and she became his manager. Days later, he made his first commercial recordings for American Record Corporation; he was introduced to their A&R man Art Satherly by recording artist Tex Ritter. From the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth of January, the fifth of February, and twenty-fifth of March of 1935, Lead Belly cut more than forty sides for the ARC, of which only three records (six sides, that is) were released. Those issued were all blues sides, rather than his folk songs. These “race records” didn’t prove too popular with black listeners, who by that time were more interested in modern artists like Big Bill Broonzy than Lead Belly’s country blues, and they sold rather poorly. That March, Lead Belly accompanied Lomax on a lecture in colleges across New England.
A full color spread of Lead Belly, as published in Life magazine on April 19, 1937.
The day after his final ARC session, Lead Belly left for Louisiana—moving to Dallas soon after—and his partnership with Lomax ended rather acrimoniously, with a paycheck for three-hundred dollars—Lead Belly’s cut of the 1,500 dollars they earned during their time together, subtracting “expenses for purchasing a new Stella guitar, clothing, dentist’s fees, etc.” When he arrived in Shreveport, Lead Belly hired a lawyer and filed suit against John A. Lomax for full payment of his earnings while working for Lomax. The suit was settled that September for two-hundred-fifty dollars, with Lead Belly asking for a reconciliation between the two. By the early part of 1936, the Ledbetters had returned to New York, living in an apartment on West 52nd Street. That November, John and Alan Lomax published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, and the following April, Lead Belly was publicized in a Life magazine spread. By the latter half of the 1930s, there was a surge in popularity for folk music burgeoning in New York, championed largely by leftists and union agitators, and Lead Belly was soon to become endeared to their movement. As early as 1937, he was already being touted as a “people’s artist.” While those folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger dressed in workingman’s garb—flannel shirts and denim workwear—Lead Belly, no doubt fed up on those styles from his time working on the field and in prison, always wore fine clothes—double breasted suits and bow ties.
On March 5, 1939, Lead Belly was jailed for assault at Riker’s Island, and once bailed, Alan Lomax arranged for a recording session with the “high end” record label Musicraft on the first of April. These were to be his first commercial recordings since his ARC sessions in 1935, the proceeds of which would help with Lead Belly’s legal expenses. Ten sides were released by Musicraft in an album titled Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly. As the folk music movement grew, so did Lead Belly’s popularity. He began to perform on the radio, and achieve greater success. In June of 1940, Alan Lomax convinced Victor to record Lead Belly, and he produced another album, this time paired with the Golden Gate Quartet to produce the three disc set The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs. The next year, he attended the third inauguration of President Roosevelt, and began recording for Moe Asch’s Asch Records. All the while, he continued to record prolifically for the Library of Congress. In the middle of the 1940s, Lead Belly traveled to Los Angeles, California while Paramount Pictures optioned John A. Lomax’s autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter as a picture, starring Bing Crosby as Lomax and Josh White as Ledbetter (oh how I wish that had come to fruition). While there, Lead Belly had a short-lived radio program, and—again thanks to Tex Ritter—recorded twelve sides for Capitol Records.
Throughout the entire decade of the 1940s, Lead Belly’s popularity and success skyrocketed. From humble beginnings, he was being touted as “quite probably the greatest living American folk singer.” He toured, appearing in countless concerts, mostly in New York by the ’40s. But by the end of the decade, Lead Belly started to wind down. His success was soaring in 1949, and he embarked for a tour of Europe, but he soon fell ill, and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Paris. On his return to the states, Lead Belly played his last concert on June 15, 1949 at the University of Texas in Austin, remembering the life of John A. Lomax, who had died from a stroke the previous year. On December 6, 1949, Huddie Ledbetter succumbed to his illness and died at the Bellevue Hospital in New York City, leaving behind a legacy of well over five hundred recorded songs and a profound impact on all the world’s music for generations to come.