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photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Description of Leadbelly's Music:

Traditional folk, folk-blues


Leadbelly was part of a generation of traditional folksingers which included many radical topical songwriters, like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, and their offshoot band the Weavers. He was also one of the main forebears of the folk-blues - a style which was decidedly rooted in rural traditional music and influenced by early hymns and murder ballads. Other great folk-blues artists include Josh White, Ma Rainey, and later artists like Lightnin' Hopkins and even, to some extent, Townes Van Zandt. Indeed, fans of each of these artists would be advised to learn more about Leadbelly, and vice versa.

Recommended Leadbelly CDs:

Tradition Masters: Leadbelly (Tradition Records, 2002) compare prices

Important Recordings: 1934-1949 (JSP Records, 2006) compare prices

Live: York 1947, Austin 1949 (Document Records, 2004) compare prices

Purchase/Download Leadbelly MP3s:

"Goodnight Irene" (from The Legend of Leadbelly)
"Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" (from The Best of Leadbelly)
"Black Betty" (from Blues Routes)

Leadbelly Biography:

Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter (pronounced "hugh-dee") was born sometime around January 1888 near a small Louisiana town called Mooringsport. His birth date is estimated based on several different reports from the US Census, which listed him as 12 years old in 1910, though he listed 1889 as his birthdate on his draft registration card.

At any rate, he was the son of Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter - a couple who married in February 1888. Sometime around 1903, the family moved from Louisiana to Texas, where Ledbetter would grow up. He was already a musical child by the age of five, when they arrived in Texas, and was supposedly already quite adept on the guitar. As a child, he performed in the red light district of Shreveport, LA, picking up folk and blues styles from other musicians on the scene.

As a young teenager, he was gifted an accordion and began to learn how to play that instrument (though he was already proficient on guitar). Eventually, he left his first wife and children to make a living as a musician and began writing songs. As legend has it, Leadbelly's first composition was about the racial divide on the Titanic after its sinking in 1912. Around this same time, he began performing with another young player in Texas named Blind Lemon Jefferson (who would also go on to be widely considered a major influence among folk-blues players). The two played together in Dallas before Leadbelly was arrested for possession of a gun, and thus began his long relationship with the law.

Eventually, in jail on a murder charge, he appealed to the state governor with a song and was granted a pardon. He was then jailed again on an attempted murder charge in Louisiana. Three years later, while serving that sentence, he enthralled John Lomax and Alan Lomax (the musicologists) who were visiting southern prisons looking for the music of inmates. They were so taken with Leadbelly's musicality and talent, they petitioned the state for his early release and proceeded to present him to northern audiences as the newest folksinger. This was around the early 1930s, and Leadbelly quickly became a huge hit on the New York folk music scene.

He became a friend and influence to Woody Guthrie and started recording for the division of Columbia Records which handled "race records" (songs performed by African-American artists).

Leadbelly also recorded extensively with the Lomaxes for their Library of Congress recordings project. Those recordings were collected by the folks at Rounder Records and released as a series of six albums. In addition, he made a number of recordings for Smithsonian Folkways which were eventually released as a series.

Leadbelly died in 1949. A statue of him was erected in Shreveport, LA

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