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Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (1888-1949) was one of the most important folk musicians of the twentieth century. He was a seminal figure in the development of Folkways Records, and his work played a major role in the establishment of Folkways at the Smithsonian.
Lead Belly’s name was, as Woody Guthrie wrote, “the hard name of a hard man.” Lead Belly was born in Louisiana, self-taught in music, jailed for murder, and freed to ultimately bring new, powerful influences to broad public attention. In the 1940s he and Moses Asch developed a fruitful relationship that led to numerous Folkways recordings.
Lead Belly learned hundreds of traditional songs traveling in the Deep South. He was inspired to create his own compositions and arrangements based on the dance tunes and work songs of Southern Blacks. He learned hundreds more songs from fellow prisoners. While he had a good, almost gentle voice, listeners were most amazed at his skilled guitar playing. “I listened as he tuned up his twelve string Stella and eased his fingers up and down along the neck in the same way that the library and museum clerk touched the frame of the best painting in their gallery,” Guthrie wrote. Lead Belly played with pure fighting power and deep-felt passion.
John and Alan Lomax met Lead Belly during one of their recording trips for the Library of Congress. Lead Belly was then a prison inmate, and the Lomaxes managed to secure his release. Lead Belly traveled with them, eventually settling in New York City.
Lead Belly’s repertoire included diverse African-American styles from work songs, ring chants, cowboy songs, games, and Tin Pan Alley to the Delta blues. His Folkways Records classic, the multi-volume Lead Belly’s Last Sessions, reflects this diversity. Some of his best-known songs are “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line,” and “Goodnight Irene.” In addition to recordings for the Library of Congress, and Moe Asch’s companies—Asch, Disc, and Folkways Records—Lead Belly also recorded for RCA, Capitol, and Columbia Records.
Asch was philosophically committed to artistic freedom, something that prompted the independent-minded Lead Belly to record all types of songs in his repertoire. This generated controversy when Asch issued a record of Lead Belly singing children’s songs including “Skip to My Lou” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” Famed journalist Walter Winchell railed against the collection in the press, asking, “How could one issue a children’s record by a convicted murderer?”
Lead Belly was formal in dress and demeanor, and resented the various humiliations he had to endure. He recorded songs of social protest, among them “Bourgeois Blues,” a song that he composed after a visit to Washington, D.C., when he had been refused accommodation in a rooming house. While he performed with other social activist Folkways artists Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, and Pete Seeger, Lead Belly sought a career in the movie and entertainment industry, without great personal success.
His influence, however, was felt broadly after his death. The Weavers, with Pete Seeger, covered Lead Belly’s songs and exposed his music to wider audiences. “Goodnight Irene” became the number-one hit in the United States, selling two million records in 1950. Lead Belly’s rhythmic style of twelve-string guitar playing and his songs inspired a whole new generation of performers as diverse as Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beach Boys.
Lead Belly’s influence has been directly felt in the Center. His songs, covered by Little Richard, Taj Mahal, Brian Wilson, and Sweet Honey in the Rock, were featured on the benefit album, Folkways, A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, that helped pay for the Smithsonian’s acquisition of Folkways and also won a Grammy Award.
Smithsonian Folkways has reissued Lead Belly’s albums. A postage stamp was issued in Lead Belly’s honor during a ceremony at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The largest existing collection of Lead Belly’s recordings is now in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.