Historical Figures

Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter (1888-1949)

Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly (or Leadbelly), grew up working as a farmhand in Louisiana and Texas. His musical career began in 1901 when he toured Shreveport and Dallas as a six-string guitar player in saloons and dance halls. In his early 20s he learned the twelve-string guitar, and his talents earned him a reputation as "king" of this instrument. He also had a reputation for his run-ins with the law, having been incarcerated for murder in Texas in 1918 (pardoned in 1925) and spending time in a Louisiana prison for assault in 1930.

Folklorists John and Alan Lomax met Lead Belly while he was serving time at the state prison in Angola, Louisiana and they recognized him as a valuable resource for their research on African American music history. He toured the country and influenced folk artists including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. After living in New York City for nearly two decades Lead Belly died in December 1949. His musical impact continued after his death, in the work of artists including Janis Joplin and Pearl Jam.

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Web Resources

Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Martha Promise Ledbetter, Wilton, Conn. February 1935
See a photo of Leadbelly and his wife in the Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C..