August 30, 2011

Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the music world as “Lead Belly” was born January 20, 1889, in Mooringsport, Louisiana (near Shreveport) as the only child of Wesley and Sally Ledbetter. As a young man he was introduced to the guitar by his Uncle Terrell Ledbetter and from that moment he was electrified by the guitar and its sound. He learned to play the accordion, mandolin and piano as well. Which gave him a wide knowledge of various musical instruments and rhythm. It has been said that one day Lead Belly witnessed a Mexican guitarist playing the twelve string guitar which struck his interest in mastering the unusual guitar with 12-strings.

He later became known as the “King of the 12-string Guitar” and “Stella” is what he affectionately called his guitar. Music was his way of expressing what was written on his heart and soul. At an early his father’s farm at an early age to pursue his music. Huddie traveled to Texas playing his guitar and even became friends with the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson. He worked as as laborer doing jobs such as cotton picking, farming and lining the railroad tracks.

Lead Belly once said, “When I play, the women would come around to listen and their men would get angry.” In 1918, he was wrongfully convicted for murder in Dallas and sentenced to thirty years in the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. In 1925, he wrote a song asking Governor Pat Neff for a pardon. Neff, who had promised at his election never to pardon a prisoner, broke his promise and set Lead Belly free. Back on the road with many new songs he had learned or written in Texas, Huddie again found enthusiastic audiences throughout the south. But, as the center of admiring crowds, he was again the target of envy and jealousy. In 1930, after a racial fight at a party, which was likely in the Jim Crow south he was sentenced to another prison term in the infamous Angola Farm prison plantation in Louisiana. In a way, this was a stroke of luck, because he was recorded by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were recording folk songs for the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Lead Belly was pardon in 1935, joining John Lomax and his son Alan, they showcased Lead Belly to northern audiences where he played on college campuses like Harvard, Princeton, and NYU. Internationally he was received with great acclaim as a famous singer of American folk songs.

WNYC Radio interview by Henrietta Yurchenko with Alan Lomax on Lead Belly (mid '60's) & an unaired radio show with songs by Lead Belly presented by Woody Guthrie (1940)...


More Lead Belly
The Land Where the Blues Began a 1979 film by Alan Lomax

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