Lead Belly and the Jim Crow Blues

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.


Jim Crow Blues (1930)

While the exact date and year that Jim Crow Blues was recorded is unknown (some estimate it was 1930), the song titled Jim Crow #2 was recorded in February, 1940. Around this time, the effects of Jim Crow laws were still being felt in the United States, and the song is a commentary on the discrimination and segregation that was occurring everywhere, “not only geographically, but also on the radio, in movies and in newspapers.”

‘Bunk Johnson told me too, this old Jim Crowism dead bad luck for me and you.

I been traveling, I been traveling from shore to shore
Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow’

Because of the implications of Jim Crow laws, Black Americans (regardless of their occupation or status) suffered economically, as much as they did socially and culturally. During the Jim Crow era and beyond, Black Americans faced severe wage disparity — an issue that is still ongoing in America today.


Go Down Old Hannah (1935)

The song Go Down Old Hannah was recorded by Lead Belly and John Lomax in Wilton, Ct., in 1935. According to WorkSongs.org, “Hannah” was the name that workers on Texas prison farms gave the sun.” This song was widely popular on prison farms throughout the south — according to Bruce Jackson in his noteworthy book, Wake Up Dead Man, there are at least 10 different recordings of different versions of the song in various archives. Through recordings by Alan and John Lomax, this song made its way into folk music performance by Leadbelly, Lightning Hopkins and Pete Seeger.”

‘Why don’t you go down old Hannah, well, well, well,
Don’t you rise no more, don’t you rise no more
Why don’t you go down old Hannah, Hannah,
Don’t you rise no more.’

References:

Biography.com Editors. “Lead Belly, 1885-1949” Biography.com, APR 1, 2014, https://www.biography.com/musician/lead-belly.

Marco Principia. “Jim Crow and the Blues.” Words in the Bucket, 13/01/2017, https://www.wordsinthebucket.com/jim-crow-and-the-blues.

WorkSongs.org. “Go Down Old Hannah.” http://www.worksongs.org/blog/2012/12/13/go-down-old-hannah-2.