Lead Belly with a melodeon c. 1942
|Birth name||Huddie William Ledbetter|
|Also known as||Lead Belly|
|Born|| January 23, 1888 |
Mooringsport, Louisiana, U.S.
|Died||December 6, 1949 61) (aged|
New York City
Huddie William Ledbetter ( // ; January 23, 1888 – December 6, 1949), better known by the stage name Lead Belly, was an American folk and blues singer, musician and songwriter notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the folk standards he introduced, including his renditions of "Goodnight, Irene", "Midnight Special", "Cotton Fields", and "Boll Weevil".
Lead Belly usually played a twelve-string guitar, but he also played the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and windjammer.In some of his recordings, he sang while clapping his hands or stomping his foot.
Lead Belly's songs covered a wide range of genres and topics including gospel music; blues about women, liquor, prison life, and racism; and folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding, and dancing. He also wrote songs about people in the news, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, Jack Johnson, the Scottsboro Boys and Howard Hughes. Lead Belly was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Though many releases credit him as "Leadbelly", he himself wrote it as "Lead Belly", which is also the spelling on his tombstoneand the spelling used by the Lead Belly Foundation.
Lead Belly pronounced his first name /ˈhuhdːee/.He can be heard pronouncing his name this way both speaking at the beginning and singing toward the end on one of his recordings of "Boll Weevil".
The younger of two children, Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter to Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana.On his World War II draft registration card in 1942, he gave his birthplace as Freeport, Louisiana ("Shreveport").
There is uncertainty over his precise date and year of birth. The Lead Belly Foundation gives January 20, 1889,and his grave marker gives the year 1889. His 1942 draft registration card states January 23, 1889. However, the 1900 United States Census lists "Hudy Ledbetter" as 12 years old, born January 1888, and the 1910 and 1930 censuses also give his age as corresponding to a birth in 1888. The 1940 census lists his age as 51, with information supplied by wife Martha. The books Blues: A Regional Experience by Eagle and LeBlanc and Encyclopedia of Louisiana Musicians by Tomko gives January 23, 1888, while the Encyclopedia of the Blues gives January 20, 1888.
His parents had cohabited for several years, but they legally married on February 26, 1888. When Huddie was five years old, the family settled in Bowie County, Texas. The 1910 census of Harrison County, Texas, shows "Hudy Ledbetter" living next door to his parents with his first wife, Aletha "Lethe" Henderson. Aletha is registered as age 19 and married one year. Others say she was 15 when they married in 1908. It was in Texas that Ledbetter received his first instrument, an accordion, from his uncle Terrell. By his early twenties, having fathered at least two children, Ledbetter left home to make his living as a guitarist and occasional laborer.
Between 1915 and 1939, Ledbetter served several prison and jail terms for a variety of criminal charges. In 1934, when Lead Belly was released from one of his last incarcerations, the United States was deep in the Great Depression, and jobs were very scarce. In September of that year, in need of regular work in order to avoid cancellation of his release from prison, Lead Belly asked John Lomax to take him on as a driver. For three months, he assisted the 67-year-old in his folk song collecting around the South. Alan Lomax, his son, was ill and did not accompany him on this trip.
By 1903, Huddie was already a "musicianer", [ page needed ] He was "discovered" there thirty years later during a visit by folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax.a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport audiences in St. Paul's Bottoms, a notorious red-light district there. He began to develop his own style of music after exposure to various musical influences on Shreveport's Fannin Street, a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottoms, now referred to as Ledbetter Heights. While in prison, Lead Belly may have first heard the traditional prison song "Midnight Special".
Deeply impressed by Ledbetter's vibrant tenor and extensive repertoire, the Lomaxes recorded him in 1933 on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned with new and better equipment in July 1934, recording hundreds of his songs. On August 1, Ledbetter was released after having again served nearly all of his minimum sentence, following a petition the Lomaxes had taken to Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen at his urgent request. It was on the other side of a recording of his signature song, "Goodnight Irene".[ clarification needed ]
A prison official later wrote to John Lomax denying that Ledbetter's singing had anything to do with his release from Angola (state prison records confirm he was eligible for early release due to good behavior). However, both Ledbetter and the Lomaxes believed that the record they had taken to the governor had hastened his release from prison.
In December 1934, Lead Belly participated in a "smoker" (group sing) at a Modern Language Association meeting at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where the senior 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 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 March of Time newsreels about him. Lead Belly attained fame – although not fortune.
The following week, he began recording for the American Record Corporation, but these recordings achieved little commercial success. He recorded over 40 sides for ARC (intended to be released on their Banner, Melotone, Oriole, Perfect, and Romeo labels and their short-lived Paramount series), but only five sides were actually issued. Part of the reason for the poor sales may have been that ARC released only his blues songs rather than the folk songs for which he would later become better known. Lead Belly continued to struggle financially. Like many performers, what income he made during his career 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 repertoire and those of other African Americans 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. In March 1935, Lead Belly accompanied John Lomax on a previously scheduled two-week lecture tour of colleges and universities in the Northeast, culminating at Harvard.
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 her husband had earned during three months of performing, but in installments, on the pretext Lead Belly would spend it all on drinking if given a lump sum. From Louisiana, Lead Belly successfully sued Lomax for both the full amount and release from his management contract. The quarrel was bitter, with hard feelings on both sides. Curiously, in the midst of the legal wrangling, Lead Belly wrote to Lomax proposing they team up again, but it was not to be. Further, the book about Lead Belly published by the Lomaxes in the fall of the following year proved a commercial failure.[ citation needed ]
In January 1936, Lead Belly returned to New York on his own, without John Lomax, in an attempted comeback. He performed twice a day at Harlem's Apollo Theater during the Easter season in a live dramatic recreation of the March of Time newsreel (itself a recreation) about his prison encounter with John Lomax, where he had worn stripes, 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 its issue of April 19, 1937. 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 text of the article 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 having learned from his participation in 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 about 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 some say Lead Belly himself was apolitical and, if anything, was a supporter of Wendell Willkie, the centrist Republican candidate for President, for whom he wrote a campaign song. However, he also wrote the song "Bourgeois Blues", which has radical or left-wing lyrics.
In 1939, Lead Belly returned to prison. 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 nightclubs 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 Moe Asch (future founder of Folkways Records) and in 1944 went to California, where he recorded strong sessions for Capitol Records. He lodged with a studio guitar player on Merrywood Drive in Laurel Canyon. Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to achieve success in Europe.
In 1949, Lead Belly had a regular radio show, Folk Songs of America, broadcast on station WNYC in New York, on Henrietta Yurchenco's show on Sunday nights. 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 (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease (a motor neuron disease).His final concert was at the University of Texas at Austin in a tribute to his former mentor, John 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, Louisiana, 8 miles (13 km) west of Blanchard, in Caddo Parish. He is honored with a statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse, in Shreveport.
Lead Belly was imprisoned multiple times beginning in 1915 when he was convicted of carrying a pistol and sentenced to time on the Harrison County chain gang. He later escaped and found work in nearby Bowie County under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. Later, in January 1918, he was imprisoned at the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit)in Sugar Land, Texas, after killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. During his second prison term, another inmate stabbed him in the neck (leaving him with a fearsome scar he subsequently covered with a bandana); Ledbetter nearly killed his attacker with his own knife.
In 1925 he was pardoned and released after writing a song to Governor Pat Morris Neff seeking his freedom, having served the minimum seven years of a 7-to-35-year sentence. Combined with his good behavior, which included entertaining the guards and fellow prisoners, his appeal to Neff's strong religious beliefs proved sufficient. It was a testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (the only recourse for prisoners, since in most Southern prisons there was no provision for parole).According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell in their book The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (1999), Neff had regularly brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Ledbetter perform.
In 1930, Ledbetter was sentenced to Louisiana State Penitentiary after a summary trial for attempted homicide for stabbing a man in a fight. In 1939, Lead Belly served his final jail term for assault after stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan.
There are several conflicting stories about how Ledbetter acquired the nickname "Lead Belly", but he probably acquired it while in prison. Some claim his fellow inmates called him "Lead Belly" as a play on his family name and his physical toughness. Others say he earned the name after being wounded in the stomach with buckshot.Another theory is that the name refers to his ability to drink moonshine, the homemade liquor that Southern farmers, black and white, made to supplement their incomes.
Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy thought it came from a supposed tendency to lie about as if "with a stomach weighted down by lead" in the shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working.Yet another theory is that it may be a corruption of his last name pronounced with a Southern accent. Whatever its origin, he adopted the nickname as a pseudonym while performing.
Lead Belly styled himself "King of the Twelve-String Guitar," and despite his use of other instruments like the accordion, 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, increasing the tension on the instrument, which, given the added tension of the six extra strings, meant that a trapeze-style tailpiece helped resist bridge lifting. It had slotted tuners and ladder bracing.
Lead Belly played with finger picks much of the time, using a thumb pick to provide walking bass lines described as "tricky" and "inventive" [ citation needed ] This technique, combined with low tunings and heavy strings, gives many of his recordings a piano-like sound. In fact, scholars have suggested much of his guitar playing was inspired equally by barrelhouse piano and the Mexican Bajo sexto, an instrument he encountered in Texas and Louisiana.and occasionally to strum.
Lead Belly's tunings are debated by both modern and contemporary musicians and blues enthusiasts alike — exacerbated by the lack of film footage of his performing rendering chord decoding difficult — but it seems to be a down-tuned variant of standard tuning; it is likely that he tuned his guitar strings relative to one another, so that the actual notes shifted as the strings wore. Such down-tuning was a common technique before the development of truss rods, and was intended to prevent the instrument's neck from warping. 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.
In some of the recordings in which Lead Belly accompanied himself, he would make an unusual type of grunt between his verses, sometimes described as "haah! " Songs such as "Looky Looky Yonder," "Take This Hammer,""Linin' Track" and "Julie Ann Johnson" feature this unusual vocalization. In "Take This Hammer," Lead Belly explained, "Every time the men say, 'Haah,' the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing." The "haah" sound can be heard in work chants sung by Southern railroad section workers, "gandy dancers," in which it was used to coordinate work crews as they laid and maintained tracks.
In 1976, a biopic entitled Leadbelly was released, directed by Gordon Parks and featuring Roger E. Mosley as Lead Belly.
Kurt Cobain promoted the legacy of Lead Belly, and some modern rock audiences often owe their familiarity with Lead Belly to Nirvana's performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on a televised concert later released as MTV Unplugged in New York .Cobain refers to his attempt to convince David Geffen to purchase Lead Belly's guitar for him in an interval before the song is played. In his notebooks, Cobain listed Lead Belly's Last Session Vol. 1 as one of the 50 albums most influential in the formation of Nirvana's sound. It was included in NME's "The 100 Greatest Albums You've Never Heard list".
Bob Dylan credits Lead Belly for getting him into Folk music. In his Nobel Prize Lecture, Dylan said "somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Lead Belly record with the song "Cotton Fields" on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times."Dylan also pays homage to him in "Song to Woody" on his self-titled debut album.
Lonnie Donegan's recording of "Rock Island Line", released as a single in late 1955, signalled the start of the UK skiffle craze. George Harrison of The Beatles was quoted as saying, “if there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”In a BBC tribute in 1999, which marked the 50th anniversary of Lead Belly’s death, Van Morrison — while sitting alongside Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones — claimed that the British popular music scene of the 1960s wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Lead Belly’s influence. “I’d put my money on that,” he said. Wood concurred.
In 2001 English-Canadian blues singer Long John Baldry released his final studio album, Remembering Leadbelly . It contains cover versions of Lead Belly songs, and features a six-minute Alan Lomax interview.
George Ezra developed his singing style from trying to sing like Lead Belly. "On the back of the record, it said his voice was so big, you had to turn your record player down," Ezra says. "I liked the idea of singing with a big voice, so I tried it, and I could."
In 2015, in celebration of Lead Belly's 125th birthday, several events were held. The Kennedy Center, in collaboration with the Grammy Museum held Lead Belly at 125: A Tribute to an American Songster, a musical event featuring Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, and Buddy Miller with Viktor Krauss as headliners and Dom Flemons as host, with special appearances by Lucinda Williams, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Billy Hector, Valerie June, Shannon McNally, Josh White Jr., and Dan Zanes, among othersAlso in Washington, D.C., Bourgeois Town: Lead Belly in Washington DC by the Library of Congress was held where Todd Harvey interviewed Lead Belly family members about their relative, his contributions to American culture and world music and an overview of the significant Lead Belly materials in the Center's archive In London, England, the Royal Albert Hall held Lead Belly Fest, a musical event featuring Van Morrison, Eric Burdon, Jools Holland, Billy Bragg, Paul Jones, and more.
Influenced by the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, Ledbetter wrote the song "The Titanic",his first composition on the twelve-string guitar, which later became his signature instrument. Initially played when performing with Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893–1929) in and around Dallas, Texas, the song is about champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson's being denied passage on the Titanic. Johnson had in fact been denied passage on a ship for being black, but it was not the Titanic. Still, the song includes the lyric "Jack Johnson tried to get on board. The Captain, he says, 'I ain't haulin' no coal!' Fare thee, Titanic! Fare thee well!" Ledbetter later noted he had to leave out this passage when playing in front of white audiences.
The Library of Congress recordings, made by John and Alan Lomax from 1934 to 1943, were released in a six-volume series by Rounder Records:
The Folkways recordings, done for Moses Asch from 1941 to 1947, were released in a three-volume series by Smithsonian Folkways:
Smithsonian Folkways has released several other collections of his recordings:
Alan Lomax was an American ethnomusicologist, best known for his numerous field recordings of folk music of the 20th century. He was also a musician himself, as well as a folklorist, archivist, writer, scholar, political activist, oral historian, and film-maker. Lomax produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows in the US and in England, which played an important role in preserving folk music traditions in both countries, and helped start both the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. He collected material first with his father, folklorist and collector John A. Lomax, and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress on aluminum and acetate discs.
John Avery Lomax was an American teacher, a pioneering musicologist, and a folklorist who did much for the preservation of American folk music. He was the father of Alan Lomax and Bess Lomax Hawes.
"Goodnight, Irene" or "Irene, Goodnight," is a 20th-century American folk standard, written in 3/4 time, first recorded by American blues musician Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter in 1933.
"Black Betty" is a 20th-century African-American work song often credited to Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter as the author, though the earliest recordings are not by him. Some sources claim it is one of Lead Belly's many adaptations of earlier folk material; in this case an 18th-century marching cadence about a flintlock musket.
"The Bourgeois Blues" is a blues song by American folk and blues musician Lead Belly. It was written in June 1937 in response to the discrimination and segregation that Lead Belly faced during a visit to Washington, DC to record for Alan Lomax. It rails against racism, the Jim Crow laws, and the conditions of contemporary African Americans in the southern United States.
"In the Pines", also known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" and "My Girl", is a traditional American folk song originating from two songs, "In the Pines" and "The Longest Train", both of whose authorship is unknown and date back to at least the 1870s. The songs originated in the Southern Appalachian area of the United States in the contiguous areas of Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, Western North Carolina and Northern Georgia.
"He Never Said a Mumblin' Word" is an American spiritual folk song.
"Midnight Special" is a traditional folk song thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South. The song refers to the passenger train Midnight Special and its "ever-loving light".
Leadbelly is a 1976 film chronicling the life of folk singer Huddie Ledbetter. The film was directed by Gordon Parks, and starred Roger E. Mosley in the title role. The film focuses on the troubles of Lead Belly's youth in the segregated South including his time in prison, and his efforts to use his music to gain release.
"Rock Island Line" is an American folk song. Ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, it appeared as a folk song as early as 1929. The first recorded performance of "Rock Island Line" was by inmates of the Arkansas Cummins State Farm prison in 1934.
"Ain't No More Cane on This Brazos" is a traditional prison work song of the Southern United States. The title refers to work assigned to prisoners sentenced to hard labor in Texas. The labor involved cutting sugar cane along the banks of the Brazos River, where many of the state's prison farms were located in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
"See See Rider", also known as "C.C. Rider", "See See Rider Blues" or "Easy Rider", is a popular American 12-bar blues folk blues song that became a blues and jazz standard. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was the first to record it on October 16, 1924, at Paramount Records in New York. The song uses mostly traditional blues lyrics to tell the story of an unfaithful lover, commonly called an "easy rider": "See see rider, see what you have done", making a play on the word "see" and the sound of "easy".
"Take a Whiff on Me" is an American folk song, with references to the use of cocaine. It is also known as "Take a Whiff ", "Cocaine Habit", and "Cocaine Habit Blues".
"Mr. Hitler" or "Hitler Song"' is a blues song written by Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter about German chancellor Adolf Hitler released in 1942.
Looking for a Home is an album by American folk singer Odetta, released in 2001. It consists of songs written and/or performed by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly.
Best of the M.C. Records Years 1999–2005 is a compilation album by American folk singer Odetta, released in 2006. It contains songs she recorded on the M.C. Records label.
Harriet Elizabeth "Hally" Wood was an American musician, singer and folk musicologist. She worked with John and Alan Lomax and participated in the publication of songbooks for the works of artists like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. She also performed as a singer and recorded solo and collaborative albums with folk singers such as Pete Seeger.
Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs is a remastered compilation album of American folk songs sung by legend Leadbelly accompanied by Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Sonny Terry, originally recorded by Moses Asch in the 1940s and re-released in 1989 by Folkways Records.
Jack Johnson denied access on Titanic.
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