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Lead Belly biography

LeadBelly Born: January 20, 1888, Mooringsport, Louisiana

Died: December 6, 1949, New York, New York

Also known as: Huddie William Ledbetter

By all accounts LeadBelly was a captivating performer, and the story of his colorful life certainly gives credence to the reputation. His performance was enchanting enough to disarm even the heavy arm of Southern, white, law enforcement — he twice was pardoned from long prison sentences as a result of his talent. LeadBelly was an itinerant musician, and a living catalogue of many musical traditions and influences, from folk to country blues to prison songs to ballads. His wide repertoire carried a rich sense of black history. He traveled and played for a time with Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was probably his primary blues influence and reportedly taught him how to play slide guitar. It was folklorist John Lomax who recognized LeadBelly as a national treasure and orchestrated his second prison release on those grounds, later recording him and organizing performances. Lead Belly later moved to New York and became an integral part of the city’s folk scene. During his lifetime he never experienced the success and recognition he deserved, but his influence on American music is incalculable. He has inspired many songwriters, including Bob Dylan, and his recordings document a rich musical legacy that without him might have been forgotten.

Essential listening: “Goodnight Irene,” “Bourgeois Blues,” “Scottsboro Blues,” “Rock Island Line”

LeadBelly photo gallery