(born circa Jan. 21, 1885?, Mooringsport, La., U.S.—died Dec. 6, 1949, New York, N.Y.) U.S. folk blues singer and songwriter. As a child he learned to play many instruments; he later worked as an itinerant musician with Blind Lemon Jefferson. In 1918 he was imprisoned for murder; he was pardoned in 1925 by the governor of Texas, who had visited the prison and heard him sing. Resuming a life of drifting, he was imprisoned for attempted murder in 1930; he was discovered in 1933 by folklorist John Lomax, who secured his release. Under Lomax's guidance he embarked on a concert tour, published 48 songs with commentary about Depression-era conditions of African Americans (1936), and recorded extensively. He worked with Woody Guthrie in the group the Headline Singers. Leadbelly died penniless, but several of his songs, including “Goodnight, Irene,” “The Midnight Special,” and “Rock Island Line,” soon became standards.
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