Leadbelly was larger than life. We could write books about the legends. This article is just about what we know, all speculation aside. Huddie William Ledbetter was born on January 29, 1885 on a plantation near Beaumont, Texas. He was the only child of his parents Wesley and Sally. His parents moved to Leigh, Texas when he was five and it was there that he became interested in music, encouraged by his uncle Terrell who bought Huddie an accordion.
It was some years later when Huddie picked up the guitar, but by the age of 21 he had left home to wander around Texas and Louisiana trying to make his living as a musician. Over the next ten years Huddie wandered throughout the southwest eking out an existence by playing guitar when he could and working as a laborer when he had to.
Huddie Ledbetter was the world's greatest cotton picker, railroad track liner, lover, and drinker as well as guitar player. This assertion came from no less an authority on the matter than Huddie himself. Since not everyone agreed with his opinion Huddie frequently found himself obliged to convince them. His convincing frequently landed him in jail.
In 1916 Huddie was in jail in Texas on assault charges when he escaped. He spent the next two years under the alias of Walter Boyd. But then after he killed a man in a fight he was convicted of murder and sentenced to thirty years of hard labor at Huntsville, Texas' Shaw State Prison Farm. After seven years he was released after begging pardon from the governor with a song: "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, like you got me, I'd wake up in the mornin' and set you free"
Pat Neff was convinced by the song and by Huddie's assurances that he'd seen the error of his ways. Huddie left Huntsville a free man. But in 1930 he was arrested, tried, and convicted of attempted homicide in Louisiana. It was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in July 1933 that Huddie met folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan who were touring the south for the Library of Congress collecting unwritten ballads and folk songs using newly available recording technology. The Lomaxes had discovered that Southern prisons were among the best places to collect work songs, ballads, and spirituals - but Leadbelly, as he now called himself, was a particular find.
Over the next few days the Lomaxes recorded hundreds of songs. When they returned in the summer of 1934 for more recordings Leadbelly told them of his pardon in Texas. As Allen Lomax tells it, "We agreed to make a record of his petition on the other side of one of his favorite ballads, 'Goodnight Irene'. I took the record to Governor Allen on July 1. On August 1 Leadbelly got his pardon. On September 1 I was sitting in a hotel in Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Leadbelly with his guitar, his knife, and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, 'Boss, you got me out of jail and now I've come to be your man'"
In 1935 Lomax took Leadbelly North where he became a sensation. Leadbelly remained Leadbelly. After hearing Cab Calloway sing in Harlem he announced that he could "beat that man singin' every time". His inclination toward violent resolution of conflicts, though mellowed, lead to threatening Lomax with a knife which effectively ended their friendship.
Leadbelly first achieved prominence when a somewhat sensational article appeared in The New York Herald Tribune shortly after his arrival in New York with John A. Lomax and his son Alan. The article, which appeared on 3 January 1935, was entitled "Lomax Arrives with Leadbelly, Negro Minstrel / Sweet singer of the swamplands here to do a few tunes between homicides." The article featured a famous, if untrue, part of the Leadbelly legend: "Lead Belly is a powerful, knife-toting Negro, who has killed one man and seriously wounded another.Twice has Lead Belly sung for the Governors of Southern states, and twice has he been pardoned by them from serving long terms in state penitentiaries."
Nevertheless by 1940 Leadbelly had become well known in the recording industry. Leadbelly became a symbol of the burgeoning "folk movement" during the late 1930s and 1940s, recording and entertaining until his death. Over the next 9 years Leadbelly's fame and success continued to increase until he fell ill while on a European Tour. Tests revealed that he suffered from lateral sclerosis and he died on December 6, 1949.
Leadbelly has influenced several generations of musicians, from mid-century folk singers to the Seattle-based grunge-rock band Pearl Jam, whose 1991 song "Yellow Ledbetter" is based on Leadbelly. In what may be the surest sign of greatness, Leadbelly has become more famous in death than in life.