Facts about Lead Belly

Lead Belly died at 61 years old
Best known as: 20th century folk singer who did "Midnight Special"

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Lead Belly Biography

Name at birth: Huddie William Ledbetter

“King of the 12-string Guitar” is what they called Huddie Ledbetter, the Louisiana singer/songwriter known professionally as Lead Belly (or “Leadbelly”).

Huddie (pronounced “hoo-dee”) was of African and Cherokee descent and grew up in northern Louisiana and neighboring Texas, where he earned a reputation as a popular performer, womanizer and troublemaker.

He became a protegé of sorts to Dallas-area bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson around 1917, but in 1918 Ledbetter was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man in a fight.

He was pardoned by the Texas governor in 1925, but in 1930 he was again sentenced to life in prison, this time in Louisiana, for intent to commit murder.

While in jail, Ledbetter met folk music researcher John Womax and his son, Alan. For the Library of Congress, Womax recorded songs by “Lead Belly” (the nickname was invented by Womax, some say), and he and his son worked for Ledbetter’s release.

Huddie Ledbetter was again pardoned in 1935. He went to New York and fell in with the politically-inspired folk musicians of the day, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Ledbetter spent the next fifteen years in New York, performing and recording, but never really hitting it big. Instead, his songs hit it big. A few months after his death from ALS (amytrophic lateral sclerosis), his song “Good Night, Irene” was a number one hit for The Weavers.

Lead Belly’s other famous songs include “Midnight Special” (adapted from a traditional prisoner song) and “Rock Island Line” (another prisoner song, also popularized by Johnny Cash in 1970).

Lead Belly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Extra credit

Various sources give Huddie Ledbetter’s birth day as 15 January, 20 January or 29 January; Ledbetter’s birth year is given as 1885, 1888, 1889 and 1900. His gravestone says 1889, but relatives and the U.S censuses in 1900 and 1910 indicate his birth year was 1888… “Midnight Special” has been recorded by many artists, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Harry Belafonte and Eric Clapton.


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