Lead Belly: Indie blues artist became a US music icon

Lead Belly with Martha Promise

“Lead Belly, the hard name of a harder man.” Woodie Guthrie once said this about the blues musician born Huddie William Leadbetter who spent most of his life in poverty but left an eternal legacy after his death in 1949.

You’ve probably heard covers of his music without realizing who he was. 

Lead Belly was born to sharecroppers in Mooringsport, Louisiana around 1888 (his actual birthday has never been confirmed). Mooringsport, a small section of Shreveport, is situated by the Caddo River and along the Texas border. During Lead Belly’s early life, the town featured overgrown trees, an unassuming brick school building, and vast cotton farms.

Agriculture was Louisiana’s main money-maker at the turn of the century, with timber, rice and oil a few of the state’s main commodities. When Lead Belly was just thirteen years old, he left school and began helping his father work the cotton fields, making barely enough money to survive.

Times hit rock bottom for everyone in the Deep South when the Great Depression hit in 1929.

The price of cotton and sugar dropped to an all-time low, and sharecroppers who already had a hard time putting enough food on the table for their families found themselves in dire straits.

Music called to Lead Belly from an early age, and by fifteen he was playing in small dive bars and clubs along the Shreveport downtown strip. He spent years playing Louisiana venues, and when he wasn’t performing, he was taking on hard labor jobs to make enough money to pay rent.

In his early twenties, he decided to take his music on the road to Texas. His larger-than-life frame and strong muscles allowed him to play every music venue he could find by night, and work during the day on railroad construction.

The seedy bars he frequented paired with his sometimes easily stoked temper led to his first arrest in 1915, during which he fought a man and pulled a gun on him in a bar room brawl. Though he was sentenced to two days hard labor after the incident, he didn’t let that stop him. On day one, he escaped the chain gang when guards weren’t looking, headed to the next town over, changed his name, and he was back playing music not long after.

His trouble with the law didn’t end in 1915 though. Subsequent bar fights, and his stabbing and killing of a man (speculated to be the husband of a family member) landed him in prison several times.

While he was imprisoned, it was said that when stabbed in the neck with a shiv one time by a fellow inmate, Lead Belly pulled the shiv out himself and retaliated with it. Photos which catch him at the right angle highlight a conspicuous scar running along his neck.

Mythic tales of a gigantic, crooning inmate swirled around the Texas towns near where he was doing his time. While in one prison, Lead Belly managed to have a 12 string guitar (his signature instrument) smuggled in and started playing cover songs and originals to pass the time.

On a few separate occasions throughout his lifetime, he quite literally managed to sing his way out of jail. Two different governors pardoned him after Lead Belly appeared before each of them, singing songs about why he should be freed. One of those governors, Pat Neff, had even run a campaign which highlighted his promise to never pardon a convicted felon.

Rising to the true meaning of the nickname given to him while serving out his days imprisoned, Lead Belly didn’t let the insurmountable amount of cards stacked against him get under his skin. A highlight of his career took place when musicologists John and Alan Lomax came upon an imprisoned Lead Belly, while traveling the south documenting African American folk and blues players. When Lead Belly was released, he accompanied them on their travels, working for them as their chauffer and playing clubs and shows the musicologists booked for him while they traveled.

The Lomax’s work was in conjunction with the Library of Congress. This partnership allowed Lead Belly to record his originals professionally for the first time in his life.

Lead Belly later worked with a few different labels, including Capital Records, releasing his music to the public. Though his record sales never did take off, he managed to make money touring, ultimately taking his act to Europe, becoming the first American blues player to have a successful tour run in Europe. He also found success with fringe political groups in New York, his songs about current events (he once wrote a song about Hitler) resonating with them at his live shows.

Though he ultimately parted ways with the Lomaxs, he spent his 50s touring Europe, playing in New York, and bringing his second wife, Martha Promise, along for the ride. His story appeared in Life Magazine and The New York Times, he was a regular on two radio shows, and he eventually performed with several different songwriters, including Woodie Guthrie.

His hard days of growing up on Louisiana farms and surviving the Great Depression had finally transformed into the success of one of history’s most enduring blues and folk songwriters.

While he was in Europe in the late 1940’s,  his health began to decline and he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) after seeking medical attention. In December 1949, Lead Belly passed away. Though he left the world physically, his strong spirit lived on through his recordings.

Even after decades passed, his legacy continued. Countless artists such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Tom Petty have covered his work. Bob Dylan has cited Lead Belly as one of the main influences on his songwriting.

Lead Belly’s trailblazing ways and contribution to blues music has garnered continued recognition over the years. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released a large collection of his work in 2015 which includes raw recordings, sheet music, and rare photographs, and Lead Belly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Concerts in his honor are hosted in both Europe and America every year.

Much like his endurance and strength was tested time and time again while alive, Lead Belly’s legacy continues to stand the test of time, showing that even after a musician’s stint in the world is done creating, their spirit lives on every time someone plays their record, sings their song, or tells their family about a strong, Louisiana man who didn’t just play the blues, he embodied it.

(Filed by Rebecca Day (of The Crazy Daysies); Jan. 27, 2017)

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