by Robert Wilkinson
Today would have been the 126th birthday of Mister Huddie Ledbetter, better known as the legendary Lead Belly, aka Ledbelly. He was one of the first Delta blues musicians to become a legend, and wrote many songs that have become folk standards since then.
Huddie William Ledbetter (January 20, 1888 – December 6, 1949) was an American folk and blues musician, and multi-instrumentalist, notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the songbook of folk standards he introduced.
He is best known as Lead Belly. Though many releases list him as "Leadbelly," he spelled it "Lead Belly." This is also the usage on his tombstone, as well as of the Lead Belly Foundation. Although Lead Belly most commonly played the twelve-string, he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and accordion.
… (in 1940-41), Lead Belly appeared as a regular on Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray’s groundbreaking CBS radio show, Back Where I Come From, broadcast nationwide. He also appeared in night clubs with josh White, becoming a fixture in New York City's surging folk music scene and befriending the likes of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger, all fellow performers on Back Where I Come From. During the first half of the decade he recorded for RCA, the Library of Congress, and for Moe Asch (future founder of Folkways Records), and in 1944 headed to California, where he recorded strong sessions for Capitol Records. Lead Belly was the first American country blues musician to see success in Europe.
By all means, check out what Wikipedia has on the turbulent life of this legend of the blues. His work has been covered by everyone – I mean EVERYONE – who ever made it big, and 10,000 who didn’t.
I don’t have time to do a full tribute this year, but here are a few from this true American original! They were all recorded in the 1930s and 1940s.
First, his best-known composition, made famous by Pete Seeger and the Weavers. For your enjoyment, one of the rarest clips in the world! Check out this film clip of Lead Belly performing his original version of “Goodnight Irene”
And now another of the rarest clips in the world! It’s Lead Belly live on film in color in 1945 performing “Pick A Bale of Cotton”
From here, it’s strictly audio-only originally recorded on some very primitive equipment!
Here’s an original Lead Belly performance of the traditional prison song, “Midnight Special”
From 1942, “Mister Hitler”
We’ll close with this audio-only clip from the early 40s with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Cisco Houston performing “We Shall Be Free”
Here’s a great documentary! It’s certainly worth 16 minutes of your time!
The Story of Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly Pt. 1 (7+ minutes)
The Story of Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly Pt. 2 (8+ minutes)
10,000 musicians owe it all to Lead Belly. His music will last forever.
© Copyright 2014 Robert Wilkinson