GXB15978 Huddie Leadbelly Ledbetter by Tom McNeely © Wind River Studios

Born on January 21, 1889, in Mooringsport, Louisiana, Huddie William Ledbetter — later known as “Leadbelly” — learned to play a variety of musical instruments as a child. These included the accordion, harmonica, bass and 6- and 12-string guitar. His early life was spent wandering the small towns of the deep South, working odd jobs and performing as a street singer. Leadbelly’s music combined elements of the blues, work songs and dance tunes of southern black rural culture. His exposure to poverty, violence and racism were factors that may have contributed to his imprisonment in 1918 on murder charges. He was released after six years, resuming his itinerant lifestyle. In 1930, he was again convicted of murder and imprisoned in the Angola, Louisiana, prison farm. It was there that Leadbelly was “discovered” by folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan, who were collecting songs for the Library of Congress. Upon his release from prison in 1934, Leadbelly went to New York where, with support from the Lomaxes, he began a concert tour. Many of his songs poignantly expressed the bleak despair of Depression-era blacks. One of the first black folk singers from the deep South to gain popularity in America, as well as internationally, Leadbelly wrote such memorable songs as, Goodnight, Irene, The Midnight Special and Rock Island Line. Even after his death in 1949, his music significantly influenced the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

Image and Text © Wind River Studios