01/10/08 - Huddie William "LeadBelly" Ledbetter

Tutelage Led By Vinny "Bond" Marini Thursday, January 10, 2008

This is the first in a series of TUNEAGE TUTELAGE dedicated to the music and musicians of the Delta Blues.

We will lead up to the weekend of May 2nd , 3rd & 4th which is the beginning of the month long Memphis In May celebration and the weekend of the Beale Street Music Festival.

One of the most renowned of the Delta Blues musicians is a man whose name many have heard, but just as many do not realize his contribution to the music of the last 100 years.

Huddie William Ledbetter is better know as Leadbelly or Lead Belly. Just as he has many names, his actual date of birth is also numerous according to the records. Some show January 23, 1988, his gravestone reads January 23, 1889. Other records show January 29, 1885.

There are other sources that state his birth date is January 20th or 21st and his 1942 WW II draft registration, which he helped to fill out, states January 23, 1889.

Whatever his date of birth, he was the only child of Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana and moved with them to Leigh, TX when he was five years old.

Music seemed to be in his blood as he was introduced to the guitar by his uncle, Terrell Ledbetter and became enthralled with the instrument. He also learned to play the accordion, mandolin and piano. After witnessing a Mexican guitarist playing a 12-string guitar he worked to master the instrument.

By the time he was 14 he was playing in the redlight district of Shreveport, LA, known as St. Paul’s Bottom.

He married Aletha “Lethe” Henderson when he was 29 and she was 15. A few years later, Huddie left home to find his living as a musician, working as a laborer between gigs. Legend has it he could pick a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day.

Women were drawn to the young Huddie and later in his life he could “make it with 8 to 10 women a night”. He also once said that when he played “women would come around and their men would get angry”.

This was probably the cause of a confrontation in 1918 when he was put in prison for the murder of one of his relatives, Will Stafford. It was during that time in prison, Hudy wrote the song “Midnight Special”, which later a huge hit for CREDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL.

A few years into his incarceration, Huddie wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff for a pardon.

Please, Governor Neff, Be good 'n' kind
Have mercy on my great long time...
I don't see to save my soul
If I don't get a pardon, try me on a parole...
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I'd wake up in the mornin' and I'd set you free

Neff liked the song and that combined with good behavior (including entertaining the guards and other prisoners) got him a get out of jail free card.

Huddie journeyed onto the road again finding places to play his music, but his penchant for getting into fights derailed that plan once again. In 1930 during a party in Louisiana Huddie found himself back in jail at the infamous Angola Farm Prison Plantation.

This sentence brought two things to Huddie. First was his nickname “Lead Belly” as a play on his last name and due to his toughness. It is also where he met and was discovered by John and Alan Lomax. The folklorists were traveling the South recording songs for the Library of Congress.

There in the prison they recorded hundreds of his songs using portable recording equipment which to this day reside in the vaults in Washington, D.C.. The Lomaxes took a petition to Governor O.K. Allen who signed a pardon for Lead Belly. They recorded the appeal on the flip side to a recording of the song “Good Night Irene”, one of Lead Belly’s more covered songs.

He traveled to NYC with the musicologists where he performed on college campuses around the region. Lead Belly relocated to NY where he built a reputation on the folk circuit.

During the 1940’s Lead Belly recorded with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry among others.

In 1949 Lead Belly began his first European tour. During that time he fell ill and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

On December 6, 1949 he died in NYC and his body was brought home to the Shiloh Baptist Church in Mooringsport, LA.

During his life Lead Belly earned fame but not riches. His catalog of music he shared with the world numbers over 500. A year after his death THE WEAVERS put “Good Night Irene” at #1 on the music charts.

Lead belly is known as “The King Of The 12-String Guitar” and was elected into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988 in the Early Influence Category. During his introduction, Pete Seeger said of The Weavers putting "Good Night Irene" at #1 on the charts, “It’s a poor tragedy he didn’t live another six months, because all his dreams as a performer would have come true.”

The reach of Lead Belly can be felt in folk, blues, rock, punk, children’s music and more.

The opening lines of “Astral Weeks”, by Van Morrison are “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter, Showin’ pictures on the wall…”

Morrison has stated in a Rolling Stone Magazine interview that he owned a picture of Lead Belly and put it up wherever he was living. He also called Lead belly “his guru” during the same interview.

We by no means are attempting to claim all of the songs in this post, attributed to Lead Belly were written by him. Some were written by the others who came from the Delta area, some were traditional songs passed down from generation to generation on the plantations of the south, with origins untraceable.

It is, however, accepted that Lead Belly spread this music to the world...

Lead Belly has been covered by ABBA, Harry Belafonte, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, Lonnie Donegan, The Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Billy Childish (who named his son Huddie), Mungo Jerry, Nirvana, Paul King, Michelle Shocked, Tom Waits, British Sea Power, Rod Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The White Stripes, The Fall, The Doors, Smog, and Raffi, among many others.

Lead Belly has been mentioned in songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Pearl Jam, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Dead Milkmen, Bubbi Morthens (an Icelandic musician), Dulaney Banks and Stone Temple Pilots.

Information gathered from: wikipedia.com; The Lead Belly Foundation; The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame;

Albums By Lead Belly:

• SHOUT ON!, 1948
• Midnight Special (1991, Rounder Records)
• Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In (1991, Rounder Records)
• Let It Shine on Me (1991, Rounder Records)
• The Titanic (1994, Rounder Records)
• Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (1994, Rounder Records)
• Go Down Old Hannah (1995, Rounder Records)