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LEDBETTER, HUDDIE [LEADBELLY]
Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and his wife Martha.
Lead Belly’s blues guitar inspired the likes of “Lightnin’” Hopkins
and Albert King in the development of their sound.
Larry Willoughby Collection, Courtesy of Huey Meaux.
Larry Willoughby Collection, Courtesy of Huey Meaux.
LEDBETTER, HUDDIE [LEAD BELLY] (1888–1949). Huddie Ledbetter, singer and guitarist, known as Lead Belly (also spelled Leadbelly), was born on January 21, 1888, near Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was the son of a black tenant farmer, Wesley Ledbetter, and his half Indian wife, Sally (or Sallie) Pugho. Ledbetter attended public schools in Louisiana, then in East Texas after his family purchased a small farm when he was ten. The family was listed in the 1900 census for Harrison County.
Having learned to play the six-string guitar, he left home in 1901 to make his way as a minstrel, first on Fannin Street in Shreveport, and later in Dallas and Fort Worth. He spent summers working as a farmhand in the blackland counties east of Dallas and supplemented his income by singing and playing his guitar in saloons and dance halls during the winter. While working in Dallas, he met Blind Lemon Jefferson, and it was as his partner that Ledbetter first began to play the twelve-string guitar.
In 1918, under the name of Walter Boyd, Ledbetter was convicted of murder and sentenced to thirty years in the Texas penitentiary. Either prior to his sentence or during it, the musician received his famous nickname, Lead Belly. Some reports say that he got it for taking a gunshot in the stomach; others suggest that fellow inmates gave it to him for his hard work and fast pace on the chain gangs. In any case, it sounds like his surname. Pardoned in 1925 after having written a song in honor of Governor Pat Neff, Lead Belly again lived from odd jobs until 1930, when he entered the state prison in Angola, Louisiana, on a charge of assault with intent to murder. There his music attracted Texas folklorist John Avery Lomax and his son Alan Lomax. Lead Belly was released from prison for having received credit for “good time” during his incarceration, and for several months he toured with the Lomaxes, giving concerts and assisting them in their efforts to record the work songs and spirituals of black convicts.
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Soon after arriving in New York City with the Lomaxes, Lead Belly came to national prominence through his singing and unconventional background. Despite his growing musical reputation, he continued to have problems controlling his temper and found himself briefly incarcerated for assault in 1939 on Riker's Island. Ironically, his popularity was stronger in the white folk–music scene than the black blues field. His associates included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Sonny Terry. His original songs such as "Bourgeois Blues" and "Scottsboro Boys" reflected his politics. Lead Belly's most popular composition, "Goodnight Irene," achieved its greatest success when the Weavers recorded it in the early 1950s, after his death.
Ledbetter's association in 1905 with Margaret Coleman produced two children. In 1916 he married Eletha Henderson; the two were later divorced. He married Martha Promise, from Louisiana, in 1935. Ledbetter died of Lou Gehrig's disease in New York City on December 6, 1949. He was buried at Shiloh Baptist Church, north of Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1988 Louisiana erected a historical marker at his gravesite. In 1980 the Nashville Songwriters Association International inducted him into their Hall of Fame. That honor was followed in 1986 with membership in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, and in 1988 Lead Belly's work was honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His niece, Queen "Tiny" Robinson, established the Lead Belly Foundation in his honor. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Moses Asch and Alan Lomax, eds., The Leadbelly Songbook (New York: Oak, 1962). Benjamin Filene, "Our Singing Country: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly and the Construction of the American Past," American Quarterly 43 (December 1991). Alan B. Govenar, Meeting the Blues (Dallas: Taylor, 1988). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Gerard Herzhaft, Encyclopedia of the Blues (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1979). Lead Belly Foundation (http://www.leadbelly.org), accessed August 26, 2008. John A. and Alan Lomax, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (New York: Macmillan, 1936). Nolan Porterfield, Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Christine Hamm, "LEDBETTER, HUDDIE [LEADBELLY]," accessed September 16, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fle10.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on August 10, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.