Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was one of the key figures of American folk music of the 20th century. Huddie (pronounced “Hugh-Dee“, of course) was born sometime in January of 1888 in Loiusiana. His family soon moved to Texas, which is probably what you do if you’re sick of Louisiana. By 1908 he had married a 15-year old lady by the name of Aletha “Lethe” Henderson and was playing the accordion, his first instrument. The first song he ever wrote was “The Titanic”, about how African-American world champion boxer Jack Johnson was denied entry to that “unsinkable” ship, although apparently the story isn’t entirely true. Johnson never tried to get on the Titanic, but he was denied entry to another ship because of his race.
From then on, it was all music for Mr. Belly. Well music, murdering, prison time, getting stabbed in the neck, being discovered as a great musician, recording songs with Blind Lemon Jefferson, being imprisoned again, pardoned by the governor, imprisoned, pardoned again, slacking off in a chain gang, re-marrying someone named Martha Promise, and the small matter of becoming one of the most popular folk musicians of the century.
Sorry, did I jump over some interesting tidbits there? Yes. Yes, I did. A full biography of Mr. Belly would probably take at least 360 pages to describe, which goes over our self-imposed 500 world limit by a significant margin, and here I am wasting precious characters talking about wasting those characters. You just can’t trust me with a keyboard. So yes, for a real biography, follow that link and buy the book. I’ll just go back to the part where he was stabbed in the neck in prison and crack a joke or two if you don’t mind.
Apparently, Huddie Ledbetter was a bit of a badass. This got him into trouble at times, such as when he killed someone in a fight over a woman and got sent to jail, or the other time he tried to kill someone and was sent to prison again. Most badassly, in jail he was at one point shanked in the neck with a big old knife. Instead of proceeding to cry “why!” and dying in horrible pain like normal people, Huddie exclaimed “what in the world?!” (or a less family friendly alternative), grabbed the knife, and shanked the shanker right back. He was left with a nasty scar that he subsequently covered up with a trademark bandana.
Today, Mr. Belly is best known for playing a 12-string guitar and recording oodles of famous folk songs, including recording the first known version of the song “Goodnight Irene“. He was discovered while still in prison because of his remarkable singing voice and skill on the guitar along with his enormous knowledge of folk and blues songs. He was subsequently covered by every imaginable musician in the world, including Abba, Pete Seeger, Van Morrison and Ernest Tubb. Yes, you can be sure there will a subsequent Ernest Tubb post on this here website. And yes, that is the first and last time those four have been mentioned in the same sentence.
Now, go on and get yourself some Lead Belly records and go back in time with some of that amazing music. It’s worth it.