Born Huddie William Ledbetter in Louisiana in 1885, Lead Belly went on to become one of the key early originators of the blues, learning a wide range of instruments from childhood. As talented and celebrated as he became, however, he also had a troubled and often violent life – commonplace for a black man who grew up only a few decades after the Civil War and lived through the Great Depression.
His first serious jail time came in 1917 when he was sent to prison after being convicted of the murder of Will Stafford in DeKalb, Texas. Lead Belly, under the assumed name of Walter Boyd, was sentenced to thirty years in jail, but rescued himself with his music. In 1925 he was released after writing a song to the Governor, Pat Neff. Despite having vowed never to pardon a prisoner, Neff set Ledbetter free.
Still unknown, he became an itinerant musician and farmhand, working across the South. Ending up in fights and brawls was a common occurrence. His next stint behind bars began in 1930 when he was sent to Angola Prison, Louisiana (not far from the infamous Parchman Farm, Mississippi of which many a blues was sung) on a charge of attempted murder. Here he was fortunate to be found by John and Alan Lomax – the famed musicologists who discovered a slew of the great musicians of the era. Lead Belly was released from prison for good behavior and became a celebrated artist, touring and recording with the Lomaxes for much of the 1930s.
His original songs included Out On The Western Plain, Leaving Blues and the oft-covered classic Goodnight Irene, while his takes on Midnight Special and Black Betty will resonate on through the ages.