Sunday, April 06, 2008

Lead Belly

Lead Belly, what a name!

If a man’s name is indicative of his personality then no one could have been more aptly named. The man who provided the soundtrack to a journey through American musical tradition was christened Huddie William Ledbetter. He was born to sharecropping parents in 1888 and lived on a Louisiana plantation, when he was five the family moved to Texas. He left home when he was still very young and little is known of his early life, because Lead Belly was reluctant to talk about it. He did meet Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1915, but after working with him for a short while he found himself in Prison in 1917 having killed a man in Texas. Six years were added to his 33-year sentence after he tried to escape. In 1925 the ever-resourceful Lead Belly earned a pardon from Texas governor Pat Neff after he composed & sang a song pleading for his freedom….so the story goes. It seems more likely that he was released under a more normal programme of freeing prisoners who were well behaved.

It was while Lead Belly was with Jefferson that he had learned to play the twelve-string. Its rich tones as well as volume, ideal for playing in Texas saloons, appealed to him; it perfectly complimented his sure and powerful playing. In 1930 he was arrested again, on an assault charge, this time he was sent to the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana. In 1933 while in prison John and Alan Lomax recorded him for the Library of Congress, the Lomaxes petitioned Louisiana governor O.K. Allen to pardon Lead Belly. Somewhat surprisingly, for a second time lightning struck and Lead Belly found himself free, he became the Lomaxes chauffeur, as well as performing occasionally.

Lead Belly was not a traditional blues singer, he was more of a songster; he performed blues, spirituals, dance tunes & folk ballads…..anything that his audiences demanded he sing; fortunately Lead Belly by his own admission knew around 500 songs. In 1934 he moved to New York and recorded for the Library of Congress & Folkways Records, as well as other labels; he mostly sold records to white audiences.

Despite his stature among white folksingers of the 1940s he made precious little money. He and his wife lived on the brink of poverty and in 1949 he died penniless. Ironically his song Goodnight, Irene became a million selling No.1 single for Pete Seeger’s group, The Weavers. In the 50’s Lonnie Donegan used Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line to launch the Skiffle craze in Britain.

He liked his name done as two words, Lead Belly, not as many seem to write it today as just one.

1 comment:

r morris said...

What a shame this influential musician died penniless. Thanks for helping keep his name alive.