Personalities | Leadbelly | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

Huddie Ledbetter was born in January 1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was exposed to music from an early age and began playing guitar before he was in his teens. The music he performed was composed of shouts, hollers and Native American songs, as well as ballads, religious songs and dance tunes from a variety of traditions.

He became a popular entertainer at functions in his community, which was almost entirely black. By 1901 he had left home and he spent time in the red-light district of Shreveport. It was here that he first encountered early blues songs such as ‘The Dirty Dozens’. By the time he was 15, he had his own guitar and his own pistol – both gifts from his father.

In 1910 he was playing in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas and it was probably in 1912 that he met Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Dallas street singer. This is also about the time Huddie acquired his 12-string guitar. Ledbetter and Jefferson worked together over the next three years and Ledbetter absorbed much from the younger man, including his slide guitar technique.

Leadbelly Serves Time

In December 1917, Ledbetter killed his cousin’s husband, for which he was convicted and received a sentence of seven to 30 years in jail. He served his time at the Central State Prison Farm, commonly known as Sugarland, near Houston, Texas. During his time in prison, Huddie picked up the nickname ‘Leadbelly’. He was frequently called upon to entertain Governor Pat Neff during his visits to Sugarland. On one occasion in 1924, Leadbelly created an impromptu blues, which – legend has it – so impressed Neff that he promised to pardon him. He was set free in January 1925, but after his release he continued to exhibit violent behaviour. In January 1930, in Mooringsport, he knifed a white man and was sentenced to six to 10 years’ hard labour at Angola State Penitentiary.

Lomaxes To The Rescue

As luck would have it, folklorists John and Alan Lomax visited Angola in July of 1933 as part of John’s quest to document American folk songs and ballads using portable disc-recording equipment. Leadbelly recorded for them at Angola; among the songs were ‘Ella Speed’, ‘Frankie And Albert’ and a gentle waltz called ‘Goodnight Irene’. When it became known that John Lomax was returning to Angola in July 1934, Leadbelly saw an opportunity. As his petition for release was being ignored, he recorded his song ‘Governor O.K. Allen’. Lomax brought it to the governor’s office and Leadbelly was released in August 1934.

At the end of the year, Lomax arranged for Leadbelly to perform at a dinner given by the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia. Within days, the two visited New York and were written up in the New York Herald Tribune. This led to Leadbelly’s first commercial recording sessions (for ARC) in early 1935. He also continued to record for John – and later John’s son Alan – Lomax...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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