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Leadbelly (1888-1949) - born Huddie Ledbetter; alias Walter Boyd

 

American blues singer, "King of The Twelve-String Guitar," who twice sang himself out of jails. Ledbetter helped to inspire the folk and blues revivals of the Fifties and Sixties and he was one of the first traditional folk musicians to perform for a city audience. Ledbetter's perseverance and power earned him the nickname Leadbelly – he could pick in the cotton fields 1,000 pounds a day. According to some critics, Leadbelly's rendition of Blind Lemon's 'Matchbox Blues,' using a knife-slide guitar technique, was probably the finest blues he ever recorded.

"Friend, did you bring me the silver,
Friend, did you bring me the gold,
What did you bring me my dear friend,
To keep me from the gallow's pole. "

(from Leadbelly, Shout On!, 1948)

Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) was born on 15 January (in some sources on Jan. 21), 1888, by Caddo Lake near Shreveport, Louisiana. Both of his parents were middle-aged when he was born; Leadbelly was their only living son. John Wesley Ledbetter, his father, worked at that time on a farm known as the Jeter Plantation, a few miles from the Shiloh Baptist Church. It was said that Sallie Pugh, Leadbelly's mother, had Cherokee blood in her. In 1982 they adopted a girl, Australia Carr Ledbetter.

Leadbelly grew up in Louisiana and Texas, where his family moved when he was five. By the early 1900's, John Wesley had enough money to buy some land for a farm in Harrison County, Texas. At home Leadbelly's uncle Bob taught him to play the guitar, and his father taught him accordion. By the time he was fourteen, he had made his name locally for his guitar playing and singing.

Travelling around in his early teens, Leadbelly picked up music that dated back to slave days. He absorbed all kinds of music he heard and made it his own. His mother sang spirituals and children's play songs, from wandering piano players he adopted the bass figurations of boogie woogie, and in prison he heard old folk ballads and prayers that came straight from the heart. First Leadbelly had an eight-string and later 12-string guitar, which was to become his trademark instrument. Also many other blues singers, notably Blind Willie McTell and Lonnie Johnson on some of his earliest records, used the 12-string Stella.

At the age of sixteen Leadbelly was married, but instead of settling down with his wife Aletha, or simply Lethe, he played and drank all night. "He didn't take anything off of black or white. If you put your hand on his shoulder, he'd just as soon, you know, knock it off or cut you," his granddaughter recalled. At eighteen he went to Texas where he picked cotton, and had many other jobs, too. In Dallas in 1910 he heard a jazz band playing for the first time. There he also met Blind Lemon Jefferson, who taught him many songs. With his quick temper Leadbelly lived violently and he had trouble with "the truculent Dallas prostitutes." Leadbelly was only about five-foot-eight, but he had a muscular, athletic figure.

Leadbelly's promising musical career was interrupted in 1916, when he was jailed for assaulting a woman. To pay for the lawyer, his parents mortgaged their farm. Eventually he escaped from the chain gang – across a fresh-ploughed field – and spent a couple of years hiding under the alias of 'Walter Boyd.' His freedom outside society ended when he shot and killed a man in an argument over a woman, and received a 30-year sentence in Harrison County Prison in Texas. The evidence was circumstancial.

In prison he learned 'Take This Hammer,' in which the song is punctuated by the hammer stroke of the chain gang. In one of his pieces, Leadbelly recalls a working day under the hot summer sun. To communicate with each other, the men shouted back and forth, trading lines of a song, or casually improvising new words to a familiar tune. Leadbelly sang this shout to attract the attention of the water boy, who would ease the thirst of the workers:

"Bring me little water, Silvie,
Bring me little water, now,
Bring me little water, Silvie,
Every little once in a while."

Seven years later, in 1925, a song begging Texas governor Pat Neff for a pardon released Leadbelly from prison. Neff had sworn never to pardon anybody as long as he was governor. However, Leadbelly was soon back behind bars at Louisiana's State Penitentiary (better known as Angola) by 1930, this time for "assault with intent to murder." The Shreveport Times wrote that "Dick Elliott, 36 years old, is in the Highland sanitarium suffering from severe cuts inflicted by a drunk-crazed negro who attacked him late Wednesday afternoon at his home near Mooringsport where the negro was butchering a hog. The negro, Huddie Ledbetter, 43 years old, is in the Parish jail charged with attempt to murder. . . ." It is possible that he had acted in self-defence.

"Mother, did you bring me silver?
Mother, did you bring me gold?
What did you bring me mother,
Keep me from the gallows pole?
What did you  what did you 
Keep me from the gallows pole?"
(from 'Gallis Pole')

In 1933 folklorists John A. and Alan Lomax found Leadbelly, and recorded his songs for the Library of Congress in Angola Prison. He appeared to remember every song that he had ever heard. In that time he had been moved out of the sugarcane fields. He served as a laundryman and entertained occasionally his inmates. With his powerful, rough voice which carried easily for considerable distance, Leadbelly was recognized by prisoners and jailers alike as one of the greatest performers. He was not a master of technicalities – his tempo varied according to his feelings and he didn't try difficult chords. His playing was straight and honest, he tapped his left foor in a steady beat, while his right foot played a complex, lively rhythm in syncopation. Although his Louisiana accent was sometimes impossible to understand, his performances won the audience with their emotional impact.

Leadbelly's lyrics went to the point; they were simple but the listener could give them his or her own meaning. Washington D.C. in 'Bourgeois Blues' became an allegory of all cold big cities: "Look a here people, Listen to me / Don't try to find no home down / in Washington D.C. / Lord it's a bourgeois town, ooh, its a bourgeois town. / I got the Bourgeois Blues / I'm gonna spread the news all around." When Leadbelly tried to give a clear statement about politics, his words became somewhat strained: "Hitler started out in nine-teen hundred and thirty two. / Hitler started out in nineteen hundred and thirty two. / When he started out / he took the home from the Jew." (from 'Hitler Song') From the plantation workers Leadbelly adopted hollers, which can be heard in several records. He started to develop a free-wheeling recitative technique when he performed at universities and introduced students to what blues was about.

Leadbelly updated the song that had softened Pat Neff, and in 1934 Governor O.K. Allen let him out of prison. Leadbelly worked for Lomax as a chauffeur, assistant and guide. They toured a circuit of college towns and Leadbelly started to become noticed by students. Through Lomax he soon befriended a young banjo player, Peter Seeger, the son of a famous musicologist, who had just begun performing for small audiences. Seeger tried to hide his Harvard upbringing, dressed in jeans, but noted that Leadbelly, who had an ugly scar on his neck, had always a clean white shirt, starched collar, well-pressed suit, and shined shoes. "Perhaps this modern age is not liable to produce such a combination of genuine folk artist and virtuoso. Because nowadays when the artist becomes a virtuoso, there is normally a much greater tendency to cease being folk. But when Leadbelly rearranged a folk melody he had come across   he often did, for he had a wonderful ear for melody and rhythm   he did it in line with his own great folk traditions." (Peter Seeger in The Leadbelly Songbook, 1962)

Lomax brought Leadbelly to New York, where he recorded his best-known songs, 'The Rock Island Line,' 'The Midnight Special,' and 'Goodnight Irene,' whichaccording to a family tale he had rewritten in 1908 or 1909 while singing lullabies to his niece Irene Campbell. Leadbelly once said that he had originally learned it from his uncles. This folk standard is, along with the 1895 Australian classic, 'Waltzing Matilda' ("he up and jumped in the water hole / Drowning himself"), one of the most popular suicide-themed songs ("Sometimes I take a great notion / to jump in the river and drown / Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight").

Living in freedom, Leadbelly did not try to change his habits, and he spent his earnings in partying and on booze. In 1939 he landed again in jail, and served two years for assault in New York's Riker's Island. A balancing power in life was Martha Promise, whom he had married in 1935. John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax published a book about Leadbelly in 1936. 

"Stop rambling and stop gambling,
Quit staying out late at night.
Go home to your wife and your family,
Sit down by the fireside bright."

(from 'Irene')

During the 1940s Leadbelly's home in New York was a centre for folk and blues activity. Among his friends were Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Woody Guthrie. His new songs included 'Bourgeois Blues,' which described the racial prejudices he encountered in Washington, DC. However, the audience was more interested in his older songs, 'Gallis Pole,' 'Sukey Jump,' 'John Hard,' 'Mary Don't You Weep,' 'Pick a Bale of Cotton' and others.

In 1949 Leadbelly travelled to Europe, appearing in jazz events in Paris. During the tour he felt his right hand becoming paralyzed and spent six weeks in Bellevue on his return. Leadbelly died on December 6, 1949, of amyathopic lateral sclerosis. He was buried in Shreveport, La., not far from the farm where he was born. Just plain bad luck robbed him of the hit record he sought. Six months later Peter Seeger and other members of the folk group The Weavers took his 'Goodnight Irene' to the top of the pop charts. 'Rock Island Line' was a hit for Lonnie Donegan and Leadbelly's classic 'Cottonfields' became a major success for the Beach Boys. Leadbelly's complete Library of Congress recordings were issued in 1990 on 12 albums.

For further reading: Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax (1936); The Leadbelly Songbook, ed. by Moses Asch and Alan Lomax (1962); The Midnight Special: The Legend of Leadbelly, by Richard M. Garvin (1971); The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly by Charles K. Wolfe (1999); Leadbelly - No Stranger to the Blues by Leadbelly and Hal Leonard Corp. (2000); In Search of the Blues by Marybeth Hamilton (2008); The Midnight Special: A Novel about Leadbelly by Edmond G. Addeo and Richard M. Garvin (2009) - Other classic blues singers who have been in jail: Son House, sentenced to fifteen years in the notorious Parcham State Farm for shooting a man in a barroom brawl; Bucca White, shot and killed a man in a barroom brawl, and was sentenced in the Parcham Farm 'correctional facility'. Champion Jack Dupree spent during World War II two years in a Japanese prison camp. Note: Gordon Parks's film Leadbelly (1976) was based on the singer's life. The playwright David Mamet has used Leadbelly's definition of blues as an example of how to construct a dramatic structure. According to Leadbelly, in the first phrase a knife is used for cutting bread, in the second for shaving a beard, and in the third to kill an unfaithful girl friend.

Songbooks:

  • Leadbelly: A Collection of World-Famous Songs, 1959 (rev. & augm. ed., 1965)
  • The Leadbelly Songbook: The Ballads, Blues, and Folksongs of Huddie Ledbetter, 1962
  • Lead Belly: No Stranger to the Blues: The Songs of Huddie Ledbetter, 1998 (selected from the historic field research of John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax; music transcriptions by Harry Lewman) 
  • Goodnight Irene: Children’s Version, 1998 (words and music by Huddie Ledbetter and John A. Lomax; children’s version by Raffi and D. Pike by permission; illustrated by Kay Ferguson)

Sound recordings:

  • Library of Congress Records: Midnight Special, Gwine to Dig A Hole To Put The Devil In, Let It Shine On Me (46 songs, recorded between 1935 and 1942)
  • Alberta, 1935
  • New Black Snake Moan, 1935
  • Alan Lomax Recordings of Leadbelly, 1937 (6 sound discs)
  • Songs, 194-? (3 sound discs; New York: Asch)
  • Negro Sinful Songs, 194-? (5 sound discs; United States: Musicraft)
  • Work Songs U.S.A., 194-? (3 sound discs; New York City: Asch Recordings)
  • Negro Folk Songs, 194-? (3 sound discs; New York: Disc)
  • Folksay, 194-? (4 sound discs; New York: Asch Recordings)
  • Play Parties, 194-? (3 sound discs; New York: Asch)
  • Stew-Ball, 1940 (New York, N.Y.: Victor)
  • Alabama Bound, 1940 (New York, N.Y.: Victor)
  • Easy Rider, 1940 (New York, N.Y.: Victor)
  • Pick a Bale of Cotton, 1940 (New York, N.Y.: Victor)
  • Grey Goose, 1940 (New York, N.Y.: Victor)
  • Alan Lomax Recordings of Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, 1940 (5 sound discs)
  • Roberta, 1940 (New York, N.Y.: Victor)
  • The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs, 1941 (3 sound discs; sung by Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Quartet; Camden, N.J.: Victor)
  • School Days, 1946 ( sound discs; New York: Disc)
  • Midnight Special, 1947 (3 sound discs; New York: Disc)
  • The RCA Victor Encyclopedia of Recorded Jazz: Album Seven, 195- (New York: Jazz Club of America)
  • Work and Play Party Songs, 195- (3 sound discs; New York: Asch Recordings)
  • Leadbelly, 1953 (Hollywood, Calif.: Capitol)
  • Music of America, 1954 (2 sound discs; New York, NY National Broadcasting Company)
  • Leadbelly's Last Session, 1953 (2 albums; Folkways Records)  
  • Leadbelly on the Air, the Rarest of All Broadcasts, 1940-49, 196-? (Lanham, Md.: Leadbelly-Lofton)
  • Folk Singing Greats, 196-? (Leadbelly, Josh White, Michael Strange; Long Island City, NY: Rondo)
  • Leadbelly Sings More Play Party Songs, 196-? (Granada Hills, CA: Stinson Records)
  • Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs, 1962 (Folkways Records)  
  • Huddie Ledbetter’s Best, His Guitar, His Voice, His Piano, 1963 (Capitol)
  • I’m Never Gone, 1964 (Folk Art Recordings)
  • Take This Hammer, 1965 (Verve Folkways)
  • Keep Your Hands off Her, 1966 (Verve Folkways)
  • Early Leadbelly, 1935-1940, 1969 (Biograph)
  • Leadbelly: Shout On, 1971 (compiled and edited by Frederic Ramsey, Jr.)
  • The Legendary Leadbelly, 1973 (Olympic Records)
  • Leadbelly, 1973 (Playboy Records)
  • The Legendary Leadbelly, 1973 (Olympic Records)
  • Folkways: The Original Vision, 1988 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways Records)
  • Leadbelly Sings Folk Songs, 1989 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Out on the Western Plains, 1989 (Dallas: Daagnim Records)
  • Alabama Bound, 1989 (New York, N.Y.: RCA)
  • Good Morning Blues, 1990 (New York: Biograph)
  • King of the Twelve-String Guitar, 1991 (New York, NY: Columbia Legacy)
  • Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil in, 1991 (Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder Records) 
  • King of the Twelve-String Guitar, 1991 (New York, NY: Columbia Legacy)
  • Let It Shine on Me, 1991 (Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder Records)
  • Midnight Special, 1991 (Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder)
  • Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, 1994 (Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder)
  • Storyteller Blues, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Drive Archive)
  • The Titanic, 1994 (Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder)
  • Leadbelly: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, 1994-1999 (7 sound discs;  Vienna, Austria: Document Records)
  • That’s Why W’re Marching, 1996 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian/Folkways)
  • Masters of the Country Blues, 1996 (Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell; Canaan, NY: Biograph Records)
  • Leadbelly: The Remaining ARC and Library of Congress Recordings, 1997 (5 sound discs; Vienna: Document Records)
  • "Black Folk Singers", 1999 (Leadbelly & Josh White; Vienna: Document Records)
  • Bridging Lead Belly, 1999 (Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder Select)
  • Leadbelly: Private Party:  Minneapolis, Minn., November 21, 1948, 2000 (Vienna: Document Records)
  • Blacks, Blues, and Dreams, 2003 (Paris: Jazz Magazine)
  • Classic Blues from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2003 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
  • Classic Blues from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Vol. 2, 2003 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)  
  • Take This Hammer, 2003 (New York: Bluebird)
  • Blues Guitars, 2004 (Paris: Jazz Magazine)
  • Classic Folk Music from Smithsonian Folkways, 2004 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Classic Maritime Music from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2004  (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Kurt’s Choice, 2004 (United States: NME)
  • Classic Railroad Songs, 2006 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
  • Classic African-American Ballads, 2006 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways)


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