Leadbelly, nickname of Huddie William Ledbetter, 1885-1949, American singer, b. Mooringsport, La. While wandering through Louisiana and Texas, he earned a living by playing the guitar for dances. For a time he joined with Blind Lemon Jefferson, the blues singer, who influenced his future style. Leadbelly's blues and work songs are a survival of the earliest African-American music (see jazz). He was jailed in 1918 for murder and put on a chain gang; he was pardoned in 1925 but was again put in jail for attempted murder (1930-34) and for assault (1939-40). The folklorist John A. Lomax discovered Leadbelly in prison and used his songs for a book, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936). In the 1940s Leadbelly made numerous nightclub appearances, accompanying himself on his 12-string guitar; in 1949 he made a concert tour in France.
orig. Huddie William Ledbetter

(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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