Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was a folk-blues giant whose music and persona transformed American culture. He sang what he lived (poverty, prison, violence) in songs like ‘Gallow’s Pole’ and ‘Black Betty,’ but he also composed standards (‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘Midnight Special’) and kids’ songs (‘Skip to My Lou’). Called ‘the King of the 12-String Guitar,’ he influenced multitudes: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Eric von Schmidt, the Dead, the Stones, Led Zep, Nick Cave, Kurt Cobain and many others, including Kevin Orton, who fronts the Maledictions. John Kruth tracks Lead Belly’s life and legacy with help from Orton and Lawrence Cohn, the Elektra executive who compiled the landmark Library of Congress LPs.
In the fall of 1917, at a dance near New Boston, Texas, not far the borderline, where the Lone Star State meets Arkansas and Oklahoma, Walter Boyd, aka Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly, shot Will Stafford between the eyes. Enraged over Ledbetter’s derogatory remarks about his girlfriend, Stafford drew his pistol a little too slowly and a moment later, lay dead on the floor. Charged with homicide on December 13, Ledbetter, age 33, had previously served one year’s time on the Harrison County chain gang for assaulting a woman. After languishing six months behind bars, Lead Belly “made a good run, but ran too slow,” as the old song goes and was now serving a 30-year sentence at the Shaw State Prison farm.
“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”-Lead Belly:
In 1925, Texas Governor Pat Neff was so charmed by a song Lead Belly had spontaneously composed in his honor that he commuted his murder sentence. But, five years later, Huddie Ledbetter found himself behind bars once again, this time in a Louisiana prison.
Whether born in 1885, or 1888 (no one knows for sure), Huddie grew up working on the farm owned by his father, Wes Ledbetter, in Mooringsport, Louisiana. By age ten, he’d mastered the “windjammer,” a Cajun-style button accordion, along with the rudiments of the guitar, taught to him by his Uncle Terrel Ledbetter. As a teenager, Lead Belly was already a father, known to pack a Colt revolver and feared for his hot temper.
After leaving home, the young troubadour soon crossed paths with Blind Lemon Jefferson on the streets of Dallas where together, they allegedly tore their “guitars all to pieces,” playing for tips on the streets, and bars of the rough and tumble Deep Ellum neighborhood. Initially written off as a “songster” for his diverse repertoire which dipped into gospel (that he recorded under the pseudonym of Deacon L. J. Bates) as well as country-style ballads, Blind Lemon became famous for his “lowdown blues” like “Black Snake Moan” (1926) and “See that My Grave is Kept Clean” first released in 1927 (and later recorded by Bob Dylan on his 1962 debut album, as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Peter Paul & Mary, and the Grateful Dead under the title “One Kind Favor”). Thanks to the windfall from his enormous record sales, Jefferson lived his final years in style, allegedly buying a Cadillac limousine and hiring a chauffeur to drive him to gigs. But Blind Lemon wasn’t long for this world, found dead of a possible heart attack in Chicago on a frozen December night in 1929.
“Mr. Hitler”-Leadbelly, recorded in 1942:
Had he lived long enough to collect royalties from the multitude of recordings of his songs, Lead Belly would have become rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams, as the author of such classics as “Goodnight Irene,” “The Midnight Special,” “Gallows Pole,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “The Rock Island Line,” which rocked Britain in 1954 after “The King of Skiffle,” Lonnie Donegan, sang a revved-up cover version, inspiring a clutch of Liverpool louts led by John Lennon called the Quarrymen to bang drums and strum guitars. As George Harrison once remarked, “No Lead Belly – No Beatles!” (Harrison, along with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn helped popularize the 12-string guitar in rock with the sweet chime of their Rickenbacker guitars, while Lead Belly’s sound was brassy and ballsy. Inspired by the left-hand bass runs played by ragtime and boogie-woogie pianists, Lead Belly’s vigorous riffs bounced like sledgehammers off a trampoline.)
“Rock Island Line”-Lonnie Donegan, live performance, 1961:
Said to be America’s greatest repository of Black music, Lead Belly’s vast repertoire of cowboy ballads, field hollers, folk songs, and children’s tunes were popularized by Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, Motorhead, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Taj Mahal, Nirvana and Jack White, to name a few.
In 1964, the Animals topped the charts with the haunting “House of the Rising Sun,” a song often attributed to Ledbetter, that is said to be a favorite work song of miners as far back as 1905.
Another song Lead Belly was credited with having written is “Skip to My Lou,” after recording perhaps the earliest known version of the song. But a bit of research reveals the Creole square-dance number originated before the Civil War, years before Lead Belly was born. “Skip to My Lou” (the “Lou” in question is a variation on “loo,” not a toilet, but Scottish for the word “love”) wasn’t the only children’s song in Lead Belly’s enormous repertoire.
As George Harrison once remarked, “No Lead Belly – No Beatles!”
In the kids’ tune “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” the goslings mourn as the gander weeps over his wife, who is found dead down by the mill pond, apparently of a broken neck, after “standing on her head.” If this isn’t enough to disturb young minds, Lead Belly’s “Grey Goose” told the story of an indestructible supernatural bird who refuses to die, no matter how the hunter (an apostatized preacher who ignored the Sabbath to pursue a tasty Sunday dinner) wrestles with it. He tries everything he can think of to kill the poor thing, from shooting it, boiling it, cutting it with a saw to feeding it to his hogs, whose powerful jaws still couldn’t manage to squeeze the life out of it. The man who sang that tune served not one but two prison sentences for attempting and committing murder. But as his niece, Tiny Robinson, once reminded me, “Uncle Huddie loved children.”
“The Grey Goose”-Lead Belly:
While Lead Belly had music in his soul, there was blood on his hands. On February 28, 1930, he was arrested after stabbing a white Salvation Army officer who’d harangued him for dancing at a concert. The volatile troubadour found himself behind bars once again, this time, in the “Alcatraz of the South,” the Louisiana State Prison in Angola.
Enter the “Ballad Hunters,” the father and son team of John A. and Alan Lomax, who “were deeply moved by [Leadbetter’s] flawless tenor voice which rang out across the cotton field like a big sweet-toned trumpet.” After recording Lead Belly’s “great, green-painted 12-string guitar,” for the Library of Congress, the itinerant musicologists had his second jail sentence commuted after serving just three years, on the condition that he become their chauffeur and bodyguard. Lead Belly had successfully sung his way out of jail not once, but twice!
While John A. and Alan Lomax presented Lead Belly’s music to the world, organizing concerts and film shoots (where he often appeared in prison stripes, with a ball and chain around his leg) they spirited him off to live in the ultra-white town of Wilton, Connecticut.
Growing up in nearby Westport, Connecticut, the aspiring young painter/folk musician Eric von Schmidt (who later recorded Ledbetter’s “Titanic” and “DeKalb Blues” on his 1963 album Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt, which Bob Dylan posed with on the cover of his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home) became so obsessed with Lead Belly, that he, like his hero, had his maxillary central incisor capped with gold.
Lead Belly had successfully sung his way out of jail not once, but twice!
As a teenager, von Schmidt scoured local Westport shops, where he found two of Lead Belly’s 78 rpm albums. As he told author Elijah Wald: “I took them down to the basement, and it was like the old cartoon by Charles Addams of this little boy in his room. He’s got a chemistry set, and he mixes all this stuff and turns into this incredible monster, and then when his parents are coming, he mixes up more stuff, and when they come in, he’s a normal boy. In my case, I went down in the basement for about three weeks, and when I came up, I wasn’t a normal little boy anymore. I looked the same, but I sang like Lead Belly.”
The Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt, on which he performs 3 Lead Belly songs (“Titanic,” “DeKalb Blues,” “Junco Partner”):
Is it odd that a Prussian-American teenager from Connecticut could sing like a Black Cherokee from Louisiana? I don’t know, maybe Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the legendary Jewish cowboy singer from Brooklyn knew the answer… “He sang Lead Belly’s songs with the same kind of spirit Lead Belly had. And he was also the only person I ever heard sing Woody Guthrie’s songs really well. Eric’s got that wild spirit, and he doesn’t water the music down for polite society; he just roars it on out.”
“The Blues,” as Muddy Waters reminded us, “is not a matter of color, it’s a matter of heart.” Between the burgeoning “Folk Boom” of the early 60s and the rediscovery of Delta bluesmen, Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly’s star was once more on the ascendancy.
In 1965, Lawrence Cohn (soon to become Vice President of CBS/Epic Records and the visionary behind the label’s Legacy series) compiled Lead Belly’s Library of Congress Recordings, a 3-LP box set for Elektra Records.
“The Library of Congress made all of those recordings,” Cohn recalled. “But if anyone wanted to release any of that material, they had to get permission from Martha. But she had no faith in anyone. I was the one and only person she gave permission to the Library of Congress to work on the material. She proof-read the lyrics with me and we had a good time. I had to decipher Lead Belly’s speech and would ask, ‘Did he just say, ‘There was a man, milking a cow on Mars?’ and Martha would laugh herself silly and tell me what he actually said. I spent a year running back and forth from New York to Washington. I found some great photographs in a box that belonged to Old Man Lomax, [John A.] that hadn’t been opened since 1935.”
That same year, Atco Records released These are My Roots: Clifford Jordan Plays Leadbelly by tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, who had recently toured Europe with jazz bassist Charles Mingus’ Sextet. A mostly instrumental set, with trombonist Julian Priester, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the album featured two tracks from vocalist Sandra Douglas.
In the early 1970s, Ry Cooder’s funky take of “On A Monday” along with his cover of “Bourgeois Blues” four years later, helped shine a light on Lead Belly for a younger generation just discovering roots music.
“On a Monday”-Ry Cooder:
And, in 1976, Leadbelly hit the silver screen. The movie, directed by Gordon Parks, was loosely based on Ledbetter’s life, and starred Roger E. Mosely, who did a fine job albeit lacking Lead Belly’s chiseled Cherokee cheekbones and soul-piercing gaze.
With Nirvana’s 1991 live performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on MTV Unplugged, Kurt Cobain helped enlighten the next generation to the music and myth of his “favorite performer.” Ten years later, the English/Canadian blues singer Long John Baldry recorded his farewell album, Remembering Leadbelly, a set of covers of Lead Belly songs, which also featured a six-minute interview with Alan Lomax.
And the Lead Belly effect has continued to ripple outwards. As a teenager, Kevin Orton was haunted by the man’s mystery and music. Orton, the actor and front man of New York gloom rockers the Maledictions, recalled, “The very first time I actually listened to a Lead Belly record must have been in 1990 or 1991, after I moved to New York. Of course, I’d heard the Kingston Trio and Johnny Cash’s versions of ‘Goodnight Irene.’ The Trio sang it like a campfire clap-a-long. The performance was completely divorced from the lyrics. I hated that recording. I wanted to punch it! By contrast, Cash’s cover sent a cold chill up my young spine. When he sang it, you knew it was a dark song about murder, self-inflicted heartbreak and suicide. I had no idea it was written by a Black man who lived a rough and violent life. Who survived knife wounds, chain gangs and brawls. Who was known by the sole moniker of ‘Lead Belly.’ Nick Cave’s cover of ‘Black Betty’ was another song that brought up the specter of Lead Belly. I had no idea what the song was about. A mean woman? But it seemed liked some secret kind thing I wasn’t privy to. As there was no internet then, the meaning of ‘Black Betty’ remained a mystery for years. I later discovered it was slang for a bullwhip, which made the song take on a frighteningly brutal dimension. What tipped me over the edge was a review of Tom Waits’s Swordfishtombones, which a critic called a mix of ‘Lead Belly and Kurt Weill.’ I was determined to hear both artists, but you just could not find their records in the Midwest in the 1980’s. Malls didn’t carry them and neither did the local hip import record stores.”
“Black Betty”-Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds:
Orton finally caught up with the man’s music while attending Julliard in the early ‘90s. “Lead Belly’s music came from a strange, very brutal world I knew nothing of,” he explained. “I could barely understand a single word the guy sang, but could taste the death, despair and deprivation. He sounded like a man trapped in the bottom of an empty well, bellowing to be released. And that guitar… He was picking it and beating on it like a drum at the same time. It was naked, raw and definitely not from FM radio or the suburbs where I grew up. Lead Belly was the perfect gateway drug. I wanted the weird, mysterious stuff, with a guttural, raw sound. It had to have scars, scratches and pops. The voice had to sound like a ghost from a different era. Pretty soon I was strung out on Robert Johnson, another shadowy name I explored. But Lead Belly was the Rosetta Stone. I loved his version of ‘Gallows Pole.’ While the Led Zeppelin version was epic, it was so damn macho.”
Folk music is like a capricious lover, happy to belong to whoever is playing and singing it in the moment. Despite heated protests from stick-in-the mud traditionalists, folk’s direct message and simple chords are essentially malleable, changing with time and locale. Orton’s clever re-write and updated arrangement of Lead Belly’s “Gallows Pole” from the Maledictions’ 2019 release Shallow Graves, is a shining example of “the folk process.”
“I was fascinated and fixated on capturing the horror of knowing you’re going to be hanged,” he explained. “The waiting is just unbearable, and no one can save you, except the person you love most. But you knew she’d have to fuck that bastard hangman and the thought of it turned your stomach to a diseased mass of churning worms. In every version of the song, the woman was either a sacrifice or a whore. There was a deep-seated misogyny in all these murder ballads. I wanted to turn this song on edge, but there was a rude bawdiness and sexuality I didn’t want to lose. I also loved the song ‘Silver Dagger,’ so I gave one to the girl in my song. I loved the image of the hangman swinging from his own rope. In the original version, the girl fucks the hangman and the hangman fucks over the girl. In my version, the girl kills the hangman while he’s fucking her and she strings the son of a bitch up in her man’s place – a comically morbid turn, but a happy ending for two star-crossed lovers.”
Nick Cave’s cover of ‘Black Betty’ was another song that brought up the specter of Lead Belly. I had no idea what the song was about. A mean woman? But it seemed liked some secret kind thing I wasn’t privy to
Orton’s captivating arrangement of “Gallows Pole” also packs a personal slant: “When I was literally hanging myself with addiction and alcoholism, Suzanne patiently, diligently and steadfastly encouraged me to get help,” he said. “That’s what my version of the song is really about, Suzanne saving my life.”
Speaking of women who rescued their men from certain doom, Huddie Ledbetter married Martha Promise on January 21, 1935.
“Lead Belly and Martha had a great marriage. There was twenty-some-odd-years between them,” Lawrence Cohn recollected. “Martha told me, in Shreveport [Louisiana] in the 30s, her father, Lead Belly and the Reverend Utah Smith, a great guitar player and singer, used to play at house parties together as a trio.
“Martha was a dear friend. She was my son’s godmother!” Cohn continued. “The bris, at my apartment in Queens, turned into a comedy of errors. After they did the snipping, they put the baby in Martha’s arms. She literally turned white. I thought she was going to drop him. She was terrified! She had never been to a Jewish savage ritual before!”
In 1936, Macmillan published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly: “King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World,” Long-time Convict in the Penitentiaries of Louisiana and Texas. With its long-winded and exploitive title, the book’s cover portrayed Ledbetter atop a pile of bulging burlap sacks, happily singing and strumming. But when the publishing royalties, not surprisingly, all went to the self-serving John A. Lomax, it ignited the escalating rift between them.
He sounded like a man trapped in the bottom of an empty well, bellowing to be released. And that guitar… He was picking it and beating on it like a drum at the same time.
On April 1, 1939, Ledbetter recorded his first protest song, “The Bourgeois Blues,” after Lomax’s white Washington D.C. landlady threatened to call the police, outraged that a Black man had slept in her building.
The harsh laws of segregation were a daily reality of Lead Belly’s life. The time had come (years before Rosa Parks and the civil rights marches of the 1960’s) for him and other Black artists to take a stand against Jim Crow. Barely over two weeks later, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s chilling vision of lynching commonly practiced in the Deep South.
“Lead Belly was a tough guy. He didn’t take shit from anybody, but Old Man [John] Lomax treated him like a slave,” Lawrence Cohn explained. “I asked Martha why he went along with it. She said, ‘Larry, he was terrified the old man would pull the plug on him and send him back to prison.’ So, he went along with it until he couldn’t. Lomax took credit for and copyrighted his songs. Finally Lead Belly had enough and split.”
At that point Huddie and Martha returned to Shreveport, where they were originally from.
“He went back and played house parties,” Cohn continued. “I don’t know the exact circumstances, but a lot of folky people wanted him back in New York. And his friends were all living there – Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, they all revered him.”
But Lead Belly’s temper soon got the best of him and he wound up sentenced to a year at Riker’s Island prison after cutting another man who talked down to him.
“Lead Belly’s version was that he was at a party in Manhattan when a guy insulted him and he stabbed him. Somewhere I have a copy of the rap sheet and mug shot. But I can’t find anything!” Cohn laughed. “Look, the last concert Lead Belly played before he died was in 1949, in Austin, Texas. I eventually hunted down the engineer who made the recording and made a deal with him and put it out on Playboy Records. It was a nice package, and it did pretty well. A few months later, I was looking through my closet at a bunch of tapes and stuff and found I had the original tape all along. Martha had already given it to me a few years before. I felt like a schmuck. But these things happen!
“Lead Belly was a tough guy. He didn’t take shit from anybody, but Old Man [John] Lomax treated him like a slave,”
“Despite the negative things people have said about Alan Lomax, which is not all that much, everything he did was what so many of us wish we’d done,” Cohn pointed out. “His track record was spectacular! When I was still with Sony/Legacy, I wanted to make a deal with Alan for his ‘Global Jukebox,’ all the stuff he’d been working on for his career. I brought him up for a meeting, so he could have his whole bundle under one umbrella. And in all their wisdom the Legacy people didn’t know what to do with it! I was fucking dying! There was no reason to stay any longer. As we left, I apologized to him. He said he knew exactly what would happen and not to give it a second thought. The next day, Alan met with Rounder Records and made a deal for the whole thing.”
For the last eight years of his life, Lead Belly managed to stay out of prison.
“I never met Lead Belly,” Cohn said, regretfully. “He was 65 when he died [at New York’s Bellevue Hospital on December 6, 1949]. He was a very strong guy but had been decimated by Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Although he loomed very large with his twelve-string guitar, he was actually short, just 5.6 and a half! I didn’t get that from Martha, but from his Texas prison records, which had his height and weight and other information.”
Ironically, Lead Belly left this world before Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt could drag him into court and destroy his life, as it had so many of his fellow musicians, actors, and writers with leftist leanings.
The following June, the Weavers released their cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” which sailed to the top of the Billboard charts and stayed at Number One for thirteen weeks. The Weavers’ star singer/banjo picker Pete Seeger later told Rolling Stone: “Some Black people bad-mouthed him [saying] ‘Only white folks like us to sing like that.’ But his power was such that if he ever got a chance, he changed their minds, because he sang some of the greatest protest songs of all time. He had the heart of a champion. I mean, when he went out onstage, he wanted to conquer that audience. And he did.”
Whether dubbed “A diamond in the rough,” “A man of the people,” or “A true genius of folk,” Lead Belly’s ongoing legacy has overcome the years of degradation and oppression he routinely faced as a Black man from the Deep South.
He had the heart of a champion. I mean, when he went out onstage, he wanted to conquer that audience. And he did.”
“I’m just letting the people know what American folk music is,” Lead Belly once said. “Unwritten music, made up by the mind [that reveals] how you feel when you sing.”
Lead Belly’s vast repertoire consisted of between 300 and 400 songs that he played from memory. Whether written by him or stamped with his indelible imprint, they forever changed the cultural landscape of America and the world.
The Lead Belly Foundation: The mission of the Lead Belly foundation is to preserve and promote the historical legacy of Huddie Ledbetter to the world and support young musicians through educational programs and sponsorship.