This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Huddie William Ledbetter, nicknamed “Lead Belly,” was born on a plantation on Jan. 20, 1888, in Mooringsport, La. When Ledbetter was five years old, his family relocated to Bowie County, Texas. He attended school in Texas until around age 13, playing in a school band, and working the land with his father. After learning to play several musical instruments in his youth, he eventually focused on the guitar, performing as a teenager at local dances. At age 16, Ledbetter headed out across the Deep South, settling in Shreveport, La., for two years, where he supported himself as a musician.
Around 1912, now living in Dallas with his new wife, Ledbetter met Blind Lemon Jefferson, an accomplished street musician, and the pair began playing together. It was at this point that Ledbetter concentrated on what would become his signature instrument: the 12-string guitar.
In December, 1917, Ledbetter was arrested and charged with murder and was eventually found guilty. (Prison is where he was designated the nickname Lead Belly). In early 1924, only a few years into a 20-year sentence, Lead Belly sang for Texas governor Pat Neff — a song in which he pleaded for a pardon. A year later, Neff pardoned Lead Belly and he was a free man.
Lead Belly subsequently ended up in New York and tried to once again establish himself as a professional musician. It worked to some degree when his music was embraced by the “fervent left wing,” and when he found himself rubbing elbows with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Unfortunately, in March 1939, Lead Belly was arrested again in New York for stabbing a man, for which he served an eight-month sentence. After his release, Lead Belly appeared on two radio series — Folk Music of America and Back Where I Come From — and landed his own short weekly radio show. He also recorded an album called The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs before moving to the West Coast a few years later.
While in Los Angeles, he signed with Capitol Records and finally began some serious recording. As he achieved success, Lead Belly developed health issues — namely, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He toured for a short period after the diagnosis, but the disease took its toll, and he died at the age of 61.