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Lead Belly

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Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949) was an American folk and blues musician, and multi-instrumentalist, notable for his strong vocals, his virtuosity on thetwelve-string guitar, and the songbook of folk standards he introduced.

He is best known as Lead Belly. Though many releases list him as "Leadbelly," he spelled it "Lead Belly." This is also the usage on his tombstone,[1][2] as well as of the Lead Belly Foundation.[3] In 1994 the Lead Belly Foundation contacted an authority on the history of popular music, Colin Larkin, editor of the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, to ask if the name "Leadbelly" could be altered to "Lead Belly" in the hope that other authors would follow suit and use the artist's correct appellation.

Although, Lead Belly most commonly played the twelve-string, he could also play the pianomandolinharmonicaviolin, and accordion.[4] 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, prison life, 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 Franklin D. RooseveltAdolf HitlerJean Harlow, the Scottsboro Boys, andHoward Hughes.

In 2008, Lead Belly was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

Biography[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Early life[edit source | editbeta]Edit

[1][2]Lead Belly's WWII Draft Registration Card

Born Huddie William Ledbetter on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, Huddie was the younger of two children to Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter. His older sister's name was Australia. "Huddie" is pronounced "HYEW-dee" or "HUGH-dee."

Ledbetter was probably born in January 1888, though his grave marker lists his birth date as January 23, 1889. The 1900 United States Census lists "Hudy William Ledbetter" as 12 years old, and his birth date as January 1888. The 1910 United States Census and the 1930 United States Census also list his birth year as 1888. In April 1942, Ledbetter filled out his World War II draft registration, listing his birth date as January 23, 1889.

His parents married on February 26, 1888, but had cohabited for several years.

When Ledbetter was five years old, the family settled in Bowie County, Texas.

By 1903, Lead Belly was already a "musicianer,"[5] a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport audiences in St. Paul's Bottoms, a notorious red-light district there. 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 17 years old, and was, therefore, 15 at the time of their marriage in 1908. It was also there that he received his first instrument, an accordion, from his uncle Terrell, 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).

Influenced by the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912, he wrote the song "The Titanic,"[6] which noted the racial differences 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. The song is about champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson's being denied passage on the Titanic due to his race — in point of fact, although Johnson was denied passage on a ship for being black, he was not denied entrance to the Titanic[7] — with the iconic line, "Jack Johnson tried to get on board. The Captain, he says, 'I ain't haulin' no coal!' Fare thee, Titanic! Fare thee well!" Lead Belly noted he had to leave out this verse when playing in front of white audiences.[8]

Prison years[edit source | editbeta]Edit

[3][4]Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Lead Belly served time

Ledbetter's volatile temper sometimes led him into trouble with the law. In 1915, he was convicted "of carrying a pistol" and sentenced to do time on the Harrison County chain gang, from which he escaped, finding work in nearby Bowie County under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. In January 1918, he was imprisoned a second time, this time after killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. In 1918, he was incarcerated in Sugar Land west of Houston, Texas, where he may have first heard the traditional prison song "Midnight Special".[9][page needed]He served time in the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit) in Sugar Land.[10] In 1925, he was pardoned and released, having served seven years, or virtually all of the minimum of his seven-to-35-year sentence, after writing a song appealing to Governor Pat Morris Neff for his freedom. Ledbetter had swayed Neff by appealing to his strong religious beliefs. This, in combination with good behavior (including entertaining by playing for the guards and fellow prisoners), was Ledbetter's ticket out of prison. It was quite a testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (pardon by the governor was at that time the only recourse for prisoners, since in most Southern prisons there was no provision for parole). According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell's 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 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 (1933), he was "discovered" by folklorists John Lomax and his then 18-year-old son Alan Lomax[11] during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm. Deeply impressed by his vibrant tenor voice and huge repertoire, they recorded him on portable aluminum disc recording equipment for the Library of Congress. They returned to record with new and better equipment in July of the following year (1934), all in all recording hundreds of his songs. 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 Oscar K. Allen at Ledbetter'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 Ledbetter's singing had anything to do with his release from Angola, and state prison records confirm that he was eligible for early release due to good behavior. 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.

Bob Dylan once remarked on his XM radio show that Lead Belly was "One of the few ex-cons who recorded a popular children’s album."[12]

Moniker[edit source | editbeta]Edit

There are several somewhat conflicting stories about how Ledbetter acquired his famous nickname, though the consensus is 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; it is 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 bandana), in defense Ledbetter nearly killed his attacker with his own knife.[13] Others say he earned the name after being shot in the stomach with shotgun buckshot.[13] Another theory has it that the name refers to his ability to drink moonshine, home-made 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 as if "with a stomach weighted down by lead" in the shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working.[14] Or it may be that it is simply a corruption of his surname pronounced with a southern accent. Whatever its origin, he adopted the nickname as a pseudonym while performing, and it stuck.

[5][6]Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and Martha Promise Ledbetter, Wilton, Connecticut, February 1935.===Life after prison[edit source | editbeta]===

By the time Lead Belly was released from prison, the United States was deep in the Great Depression and jobs were very scarce. In September 1934, in need of regular work in order to avoid having his release canceled, Lead Belly met with John A. Lomax and asked 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 was ill and did not accompany them on this trip.) In December, Lead Belly participated in a "smoker" (group sing) at an MLA meeting in Bryn Mawr College inPennsylvania, 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 March of Time newsreels about him. Lead Belly attained fame (although not fortune).

The following week, he began recording with ARC, the race records division of Columbia Records, but these recordings achieved little commercial success. Of the over 40 sides he recorded for ARC (intended to be released on their Banner, Melotone, Oriole, Perfect, Romeo and very short-lived Paramount series), only five sides were actually issued. Part of the reason for the poor 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 girlfriend, Martha Promise, who came north from Louisiana to join him.

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, 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 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 Lead Belly had earned from three months of performing, but in installments, on the pretext 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, in the midst of the legal wrangling, Lead Belly wrote to John A. Lomax proposing they team up again. It was not to be. In the meanwhile, the book about Lead Belly that was published by the Lomaxes in the fall of the following year was a commercial failure.

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 Time Lifenewsreel (itself a recreation) about his prison encounter with John A. 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 April 19, 1937 issue. It included a full-page, color (rare in those days) picture of him sitting on grain sacks playing his guitar and singing.[15] 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 Wright was the Harlem editor. The two men became personal friends, though Lead Belly himself was apolitical — if anything he was 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 TerryBrownie McGheeWoody 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. Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to see success in Europe.[13]

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 (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease.[11] 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, 8 miles (13 km) west of Blanchard, in Caddo Parish. He is honored with a life-size statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport.

Technique[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Lead Belly styled himself "King of the 12-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.[citation needed]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.[citation needed]

Lead Belly played with finger picks much of the time, using a thumb pick to provide a walking bass line and occasionally to strum.[citation needed] This technique, combined with low tunings and heavy strings, gives many of his recordings a piano-like sound. Lead Belly's tuning is debated,[by whom?] 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 Lead Belly 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, best described as "Haah!" in many of his songs such as "Looky Looky Yonder," "Take this Hammer," "Linin' Track" and "Julie Ann Johnson" feature this unusual vocalization. In the song, "Take this Hammer," Lead Belly explained, "Every time the men say 'haah,' the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing,"[16] an apparent reference to prisoners' work songs. The "haah" sound can be heard in the work chants sung by Southern railroad section workers, "gandy dancers," where it was used to coordinate the crews as they laid and maintained the tracks before modern machinery was available. (See the Wikipedia article Gandy dancers for examples of the chants.)

Legacy[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Subsequent musical acts who have performed or recorded songs made popular by Lead Belly include Brian Wilson, Delaney Davidson, Tom RussellLonnie DoneganBryan Ferry-ref 'Frantic'Album 2002. The Beach Boys ("Cotton Fields"), Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Midnight Special," "Cotton Fields"), Elvis Presley,[17] AbbaPete SeegerThe WeaversHarry BelafonteFrank SinatraRam JamThe AnimalsJay FarrarJohnny CashTom PettyDr JohnRy CooderMaria MuldaurRory BlockGrateful DeadGene AutryOdettaBilly Childish (who named his son Huddie), Mungo JerryPaul KingLed Zeppelin ("Gallows Pole"), Van MorrisonMichelle ShockedTom Waits ("Goodnight, Irene"), Scott H. BiramRon SexsmithBritish Sea PowerRod StewartErnest TubbNick Cave and the Bad Seeds("Black Betty"), The White Stripes ("Boll Weevil"), The FallSmogOld Crow Medicine ShowSpiderbaitMeat Loaf,MinistryRaffiRasputinaRory Gallagherthe Sensational Alex Harvey BandDeer TickHugh LaurieXBill FrisellKoerner, Ray & GloverRed Hot Chili PeppersNirvana ("Where Did You Sleep Last Night," "They Hung Him On A Cross," "Ain't It A Shame", "Gray Goose"), Meat PuppetsMark Lanegan, and WZRD ('Where Did You Sleep Last Night'), among many others.[18]

Modern rock audiences likely owe their familiarity with Lead Belly to Nirvana's performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on the televised concert later released as MTV Unplugged in New York. Singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain refers to his attempt to convince David Geffen to purchase Leadbelly's guitar for him in an interval before the song is played(connecting the song with Leadbelly in a way that is more palpable than the liner notes where Leadbelly appears on other albums), and partly due to the fact that it sold nearly 7 million copies. Partly the connection between Leadbelly and Cobain is underlined by the starkness and grisliness of the song's lyrics, when they are, inevitably, juxtaposed with the starkness and violence of Cobain's approaching death. Cobain listed Leadbelly's "Last Session Vol. 1" as one of the 50 albums most influential to the formation of Nirvana's sound in his notebooks.[18] Incidentally, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" does not appear on that album.

Discography[edit source | editbeta]Edit

Further information: List of Lead Belly songs===The Library of Congress recordings[edit source | editbeta]===

The Library of Congress recordings, done by John and Alan Lomax from 1934 to 1943, were released in a six volume series by Rounder Records in the early-to-mid-1990s:

  • Midnight Special (1991)
  • Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In (1991)
  • Let It Shine on Me (1991)
  • The Titanic (1994)
  • Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (1994)
  • Go Down Old Hannah (1995)

Folkways recordings[edit source | editbeta]Edit

The Folkways recordings, done for Moses Asch from 1941 to 1947, were released in a three volume series by Smithsonian Folkways in the late 1990s:

  • Where Did You Sleep Last Night - Lead Belly Legacy Vol.1 (1996)
  • Bourgeois Blues - Lead Belly Legacy Vol.2 (1997)
  • Shout On - Lead Belly Legacy Vol.3 (1998)

Smithsonian Folkways have also released a number of other collections of his recordings for the label:

  • Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs (1989)
  • Lead Belly's Last Sessions (4-CD box set) (1994) Recorded late 1948 in New York City. These were his only commercial recordings on magnetic tape.
  • Lead Belly Sings For Children (1999) Includes the 1960 Folkways album Negro Folk Songs for Young People in its entirety, and five of the six tracks from the 1941 album Play Parties in Song and Dance as Sung by Lead Belly, recorded for Moses Asch, as well as other songs recorded for Asch from 1941 to 1948, and one previously unreleased track, a radio broadcast of "Take this Hammer".
  • Folkways: The Original Vision (Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly) (2004) Expanded version of the original 1989 compilation.

Live recordings[edit source | editbeta]Edit

  • Leadbelly Recorded In Concert, University of Texas, Austin, June 15, 1949 (1973, Playboy Records PB 119).

Other compilations[edit source | editbeta]Edit

  • Huddie Ledbetter's Best (1989, BGO Records) - contains Lead Belly's recordings made for Capitol Records in 1944 in California.
  • King of the 12-String Guitar (1991, Sony/Legacy Records) - a collection of blues songs and prison ballads recorded in 1935 in New York City for the American Record Company, including previously unreleased alternate takes.
  • Private Party November 21, 1948 (2000, Document Records) - contains Lead Belly's intimate performance at a private party in late 1948 in Minneapolis.
  • Take This Hammer (2003, RCA Victor) - collects all 26 songs Lead Belly recorded for RCA in 1940, half of which feature the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet
  • A Leadbelly Memorial, Vol II (1963 Stinson Records, SLP 19) - red vinyl pressing

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