He is best known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly. 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 he 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.
Lead Belly's date of birth is uncertain. He was probably born in January 1888, although his gravestone gives his year of birth as 1889. The earliest year given for his birth has been 1885, although other sources stated either 1888 or 1889. According to the 1900 census, Hudy (the spelling given in the census) is one of two listed children (the other is his stepsister, Australia Carr), of Wes and Sallie (Brown) Ledbetter of Justice Precinct 2, Harrison County, Texas. Wesley and Sallie were legally wed on February 26, 1888, shortly after Lead Belly's likely date of birth, even though they had lived together as husband and wife for years. The 1900 census, differing from the usual census in that it lists the month and year of birth, rather than just the age, states the birth year of 'Hudy' Ledbetter to be 1888 and the month listed as January; Huddie's age is listed as twelve. The census of 1910 and the census of 1930 confirm 1888 as the year of birth.
The day of his birth has also been debated. The most common date given is January 20, but other sources suggest he was born on January 21 or 29. The only document we have that Ledbetter, himself, helped fill out is his World War II draft registration from 1942 where he gives his birth date as January 23, 1889.
Lead Belly was born to Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter as Huddie William Ledbetter in a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, but the family moved to Leigh, Texas, when he was five. By 1903, Lead Belly was already a 'musicianer', a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport, Louisiana audiences in St. Paul's Bottoms, a notorious red-light district in the city. 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 seventeen years old, and was, therefore, fifteen 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). Lead Belly would later claim that as a youth he would "make it" with 8 to 10 women a night.
Influenced by the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912, he would go on to write the song "The Titanic", which noted the racial indifferences 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. Lead Belly noted that he had to leave out the verse about boxer Jack Johnson when playing before a white audience.
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, that he was "discovered" by musicologists John Lomax and his eighteen-year-old son Alan Lomax during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm. They were enchanted by Lead Belly's talent, passion, and singularity as a performer and recorded hundreds of his songs on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned to record in July of the following year (1934). 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 O.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 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.
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, 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.) 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.
It was the Depression and jobs were very scarce. A month after his release and in need of regular work in order to avoid having his release canceled and being sent back to prison, in September 1934, 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 (then 19) 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 PA., 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 newsreels about him. Lead Belly attained fame (though not fortune). The following week, he began recording with the American Record Corporation (ARC), but achieved little commercial success with these records. Part of the reason for the poor record 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 sweetheart, Martha Promise, who came north from Louisiana for the purpose. 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 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. But it was not to be. Nor was the book the Lomaxes published that year about Lead Belly financially successful.
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 Lafayette theater 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, 1936 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 he (Wright) was the Harlem editor. The two men became personal friends, though Lead Belly himself was a-political -- 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. Leadbetter 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, west of Blanchard, Louisiana, in Caddo Parish.
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 debatable, 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 Ledbetter as an exemplar of technique.
In some of the recordings where Lead Belly accompanied himself, he would make an unusual type of grunt between his verses. He would do this grunt, "Haah!", through many of his songs, such as, "Looky Looky Yonder", "Take this Hammer", "Linin' Track" and "Julie Ann Johnson". It gave a somewhat catchy sound to the songs. He explains 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:
Smithsonian Folkways have also released a number of other collections of his recordings for the label:
Lornell, Kip and Wolfe, Charles. The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (Da Capo Press, 1999)