Lead BellyOn 20/01/1889: Lead Belly was born in Mooringsport, Louisiana, probably. There is a little confusion on the year of his birth, with 1888 being the other possibility. His full birth name was Huddie William Ledbetter. When he was five, he and his family moved to Bowie County, Texas. It would be in Texas that he received his first instrument when his uncle gave him an accordion.
By 1903, he was an accomplished singer and guitarist. He was performing in the red-light district St Paul's Bottoms in Shreveport. In particular, he performed on Fannin Street, which is now referred to as Ledbetter Heights. By his early twenties, after fathering at least two children, Ledbetter left home to make a living from the guitar and as a labourer.
In 1915, Ledbetter was convicted of carrying a pistol and was sentenced to time on the Harrison County chain gang. He escaped and found work in Bowie County, with a new name of Walter Boyd.
In 1918, Ledbetter was imprisoned for killing his relative Will Stafford in a fight over a woman. He was sent to Imperial Farm, Sugar Land, Texas.
In 1925, Ledbetter was released and pardoned after writing a song to Governor Pat Morris Neff and having served the minimum seven years of a 7-35 sentence. Neff had regularly brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Ledbetter perform.
In 1930, Ledbetter was sentenced to Angola Prison Farm, Louisiana for attempted homicide, after he stabbed a white man in a fight.
In 1933, folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, found Ledbetter in a visit to Angola Prison Farm. They recorded him for the Library of Congress.
In 1934, John and Alan Lomax returned to the prison to record Ledbetter on better recording equipment. They recorded hundreds of his songs. In August that year, Ledbetter was released after having served nearly all of his minimum sentence. He had also sent a petition to Governor Oscar K. Allen through the Lomaxes, which had been on the other side of a recording of his song "Goodnight Irene".
Ledbetter probably acquired his nickname Lead Belly whilst in prison. There are several different theories about how he was given the name. One theory is that he was given the name by the inmates calling him Lead Belly after his surname and physical build. Another theory is that he was wounded in the stomach with buckshot. There is a theory it was a name referring to his ability to drink moonshine. Big Bill Broonzy thought the name came from Ledbetter's tendency to lie about as if his stomach was weighted down by lead when the chain gang was meant to be working.
When Lead Belly was released from prison, he asked John Lomax to take him on as a driver. For three months, Lead Belly took Lomax around the south assisting him whilst collecting folk songs. In December 1934, Lead Belly participated in a smoker (group sing) at a Modern Language Association meeting at Bryn Mawr College, where Lomax was doing a lecture. The press wrote about him as a convict who had sung his way out of prison. On New Years Day 1935, Lomax and Lead Belly arrived in New York, where Lomax was meeting his publisher, Macmillan. The newspapers wrote about Lead Belly as the singing convict and Time magazine made a newsreel about him. It launched Lead Belly into fame. The next week, Lead Belly recorded for the American Record Company. The recordings did not achieve much commercial success.
In February 1935, Lead Belly married his girlfriend Martha Promise. He spent the month recording his songs and the songs of others with Alan Lomax for their book "Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly". In March, Lead Belly joined John Lomax on a two-week lecture tour. At the end of the tour, Lomax decided he could no longer work with Lead Belly and gave him and Martha money to return to Louisiana by bus.
In January 1936, Lead Belly returned to New York on his own. He performed twice a day at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. His performances were a live recreation of the Time magazine newsreel about his prison encounter with John Lomax. Lead Belly did not gain too much success performing in Harlem. He gained more success playing at concerts and benefits for leftist folk music aficionados.
In 1939, Lead Belly was jailed for assault after stabbing a man in a fight in Manhatten. Alan Lomax helped raise money for his legal expenses, dropping out of graduate school to do so. When he was released in around 1940 or 1941, Lead Belly appeared as a regular on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray's CBS national radio show "Back Where I Come From".
Lead Belly would also perform at nightclubs with Josh White in New York's folk music scene. He met artists such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.
In the early 1940s, Lead Belly recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress and Moe Asch.
In 1944, Lead Belly went to California to record sessions for Capitol Records.
In 1949, Lead Belly had a regular spot on Henrietta Yurchenco's show on WNYC in New York. Later in 1949, Lead Belly went on his first European tour to France. He was the first American country blues musician to achieve success in Europe. Lead Belly had to cut the European tour short due to the diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease (motor neurone disease). He made a final concert appearance at the University of Texas at Austin in tribute to John Lomax, who had died in the previous year, with Martha also appearing.
On 06/12/1949, Lead Belly died in New York. He is honoured with a statue in Shreveport.