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*On this date, we mark the birth of Leadbelly in 1885. He was a Black folk-blues singer and songwriter.
Musical from childhood, Huddie William Ledbetter was born in Mooringsport, Louisiana. He played accordion, six and 12-string guitar, bass, and harmonica. He led a wandering life, learning songs by taking in oral tradition. For a time, he worked as an itinerant musician with Blind Lemon Jefferson. In 1918 he was imprisoned for murder; after serving six years, he was pardoned by the governor of Texas, who had visited the prison and heard him sing.
Resuming a life of drifting, Leadbelly was locked up again for attempted murder in 1930 in the Angola, Louisiana, prison farm. There the folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were collecting songs for the Library of Congress, discovered him. A campaign spearheaded by the Lomaxes secured his release in 1934, and he embarked on a concert tour of eastern colleges. Subsequently, around 1936, he published 48 songs and commentary about the Depression-era conditions of Blacks. Leadbelly recorded extensively in 1937 when he settled in New York City, performing for political causes.
He worked with Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and others as the Headline Singers, doing shows on the radio, and he appeared in a short film in 1945. In 1949, shortly before his death, he gave a concert in Paris. Leadbelly died penniless in New York City. In the next six months, his song Goodnight, Irene had become a million-record hit for the singing group The Weavers; along with other pieces from his repertoire, among them, The Midnight Special and Rock Island Line, have become standards.
Leadbelly was a guitarist whose ability to perform a vast repertoire of songs, in conjunction with his notoriously violent life, made him a legend.
Nothing But the Blues The Music and the Musicians
Edited by Lawrence Cohn
Copyright 1993 Abbeville Publishing Group, New York