Blues singer’s violent life and lasting legacy

Early 1900s chain gang convict Lead Belly was a huge influence on The Beatles and many others bands.

George Harrison simply stated: “No Lead Belly, no Beatles.”

Folk and blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, born January 23, 1888, in Louisiana and known by his stage name Lead Belly (also given as Leadbelly), was the master of the twelve-string guitar.

Lead Belly also played the piano, mandolin, harmonica and violin, and accompanied his singing by clapping his hands or stomping his foot.

In the early 1900s, he performed in Shreveport’s St. Paul’s Bottoms, a rough red-light district of saloons, brothels and dance halls, now known as Ledbetter Heights.

Blues singer Lead Belly

Between 1915 and 1939, Lead Belly served several prison terms for a multitude of crimes, including killing one of his relatives in a fight over a woman.

During one of his prison terms he was stabbed in the neck by another inmate and nearly killed his attacker with his own knife. In 1930, he was sentenced to Louisiana State Penitentiary for attempted homicide after stabbing a man in a fight. He served his final jail term in 1939 in New York after another knife fight.

It was during one his prison terms, thirty years after beginning his music career, that he was “discovered” by folklorists John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax.

Lead Belly’s Pick a Bale of Cotton is a classic, beginning in slow tempo and speeding up to an amazing virtuoso performance.

In 1949, Lead Belly had a regular Sunday night radio show, Folk Songs of America, broadcast on station WNYC in New York. Later that year he began his first European tour, starting in France, but had to cancel the tour when he fell ill and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Blues singer Lead Belly
Lead Belly and Martha

His final concert was in 1949, singing spirituals at the University of Texas in Austin, with his wife Martha.

Lead Belly died on December 6, 1949, in New York City at the age of 61. He was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, Louisiana.