The month of February is Black History month, and to celebrate it here at WUMB we are highlighting artists who have shaped the history of music over time. Today we highlight blues and folk musician, Lead Belly.
Huddie William Ledbetter, better known by his stage name “Lead Belly”, was born the younger of two children in Louisiana, until moving to Bowie County, Texas at the age of five. By his early teens he was already performing in Shreveport, Louisiana where he began to develop his individual style of vocals and on guitar. In his early twenties he left his family to hit the road to make a living as a musician. It was in 1912 that he wrote the song, “The Titanic”, on what would become his signature instrument, the twelve string guitar. The song tells the story of a black man being denied passage on The Titanic because of his race, based on an actual experience of Lead Belly’s—though not on The Titanic.
Lead Belly found himself in trouble with the law on numerous occasions, sentenced to time on a chain gang, as well as being sentenced to jail time multiple times, and it is believed that he acquired the name Lead Belly during one of his sentences. In 1930 he was sentenced to time in Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana. Three years into Lead Belly’s sentence John Lomax and his son Alan, travelling folklorists, visited the prison and discovered Lead Belly’s musical talent. They recorded him for the first time in 1933. The next year the Lomaxes returned and recorded more than a hundred of Lead Belly’s songs including “Goodnight Irene”. It was the Lomaxes who wrote the petition to the governor that allowed Lead Belly to be released from prison.
Lead Belly became well-known after performing at a smoker at a meeting for The Modern Language Association at Bryn Mawr College, where he became known as the “singing convict” who had sung his way out of prison. The publicity he received led to his being the subject of one of Time Magazine’s earliest March of Time newsreels. One week later Lead Belly found himself recording with the American Record Corporation recording over 40 sides, though only five were ever released. John Lomax became his manager, with whom he parted on bad terms. Lead Belly then went to New York and performed two shows a day at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in a live recreation of his Time Life newsreel. From there he went on to find success playing for folk audiences.
In 1939 Lead Belly was imprisoned again for assaulting a man in Manhattan. Alan Lomax came to his aid this time, dropping out of graduate school to raise money for Lead Belly’s legal expenses. The relationship between Lead Belly and the younger Lomax allowed him to appear on nation-wide radio show Back Where I Come From, to become a fixture in the folk scene befriending the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and to become the first American country blues musician to be successful in Europe.
While on tour in in France in 1949 Lead Belly was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. John Lomax had died earlier that year, and it was to him that Lead Belly dedicated his final performance at the University of Texas at Austin. He passed away in New York in December of 1949. Since his passing Lead Belly’s music has been covered by musicians ranging from Elvis Presley to Nirvana.