Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician

Tim Flight - April 26, 2019

Music and crime go together like whisky and soda. Whether it’s hotel-smashing, womanising rock stars or bullet-dodging rappers, they all seem to be at it, and have been for a long time. After all, musicians lead something of an alternative lifestyle, in doing what they love for a living rather than getting a ‘proper job’, and so often find themselves falling foul of societal norms and taboos. Living (sometimes affluently) on the outskirts of civilisation, musicians often fall in with other types of outsiders: criminals, vagrants, rebels. The links are deep, and well-attested in the annals of music history.

But amongst musicians who have flirted with the wrong side of the law, one man stands head and shoulders above them all: Leadbelly. A great bear of a man wielding a 12-string guitar, Leadbelly travelled through the racist and economically-desperate vista of the pre-WW2 United States, spending his time performing heart-wrenching blues and folk numbers to those in the know, and getting in fights. A convicted murderer, years-long veteran of chain gangs and some of the South’s hardest prisons, Leadbelly was the real McCoy, and in this list we’ll see what made him the most badass of all bluesmen.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
A family take a break outside their house on the Bayou Bourbeau plantation, Natchitoches, Louisiana, in the 1930s. Library of Congress

20. Leadbelly grew up poor in the Deep South in the Jim Crow era

The man later nicknamed Leadbelly emerged from the womb as Huddie William Ledbetter sometime between 1885 and 1889. His unmarried parents, Sally and Wesley Ledbetter, lived on the Jeter Plantation in Mooringsport, Northeast Louisiana, and scratched out a hard and badly-paid existence. Nonetheless, for a black family of their era, the Leadbetters were reasonably well-to do. But, remember, this was the Jim Crow-era South, when laws brutally enforced racial segregation and ensured that African-Americans could barely eke out a living in constant terror of being convicted or lynched for any old crime white people dreamed up.

After years of hard-saving from his career as a sharecropper (backbreaking work in which a farmer has to give up part of their produce to their landlord), Wesley Leadbetter managed the unthinkable and bought his own farm. When Leadbelly was 5, the Leadbetter family moved to Bowie County, Texas: appropriately enough, as it later turned out, for it was a locale named after the famous knife-fighter, James Bowie. Like the Jeder Plantation, life for African-Americans was tough in Bowie: a US census of 1910 estimated that one-third of all black people in the county were illiterate.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Plantation workers riding a dummy cart to work, Louisiana, 1910. Historic Structures

19. He left school at just 12 to work the land

Leadbelly enrolled at his local school at the age of 8, but barely 4 years later, he ceased his academic studies forever. Aged just 12, Leadbelly instead went to work on his father’s farm. With money tight, despite the Leadbetters owning their own land, and opportunities for African-Americans being so limited, the decision to swap school for farm labouring made a lot of sense. But this relatively dogmatic decision was to be the real start of Leadbelly’s legend: free of academic study, he spent his time learning musical instruments and writing songs in his spare time.

Although he actually began playing music back in Louisiana at the age of just 2, it was in Texas that Leadbelly became the musical colossus we remember him as. His uncle, Terrell, fostered his nephew’s natural aptitude for music, and introduced Leadbelly to the guitar. He also learned to play the accordion, mandolin, and piano in between his agricultural duties. Like most bluesman, Leadbelly nurtured his talent in the rural South, and his hard existence – remember, he was just a child when he dropped out of school – produced the hard-hitting songs that were to make his name and legend.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
St. Paul’s Bottoms neighborhood, Shreveport, Louisiana, c. 1925, near to where the young Leadbelly played the red light district. Pinterest

18. In his early teens, Leadbelly was playing concerts in Shreveport’s Red Light District

By the age of 14 Leadbelly was proving a big draw at parties around the Bowie area. At weekends, the youngster would play at ‘sukey jumps’ and ‘juke joints’, African-American country dances. Unfortunately for his concerned parents, Leadbelly was especially in demand on Fannin Street, Shreveport, a notorious red light district. But alongside the pleasure seeking and festivities lurked brutality, as is often the way with popular nightspots. Contemporary police reports describe clubs such as George Neil’s Dive as ‘peppered with bullet holes’. Some even say Leadbelly’s powerful voice came from his attempts to be heard over the melee.

For better and for worse, Fennin Street and St Paul’s Bottoms were the making of Leadbelly. Just think of the impact witnessing shootings, brawls, drunken behaviour, and sexual liberation had on the young man’s mind. Sure enough, just as his musical prowess and performance-skills improved with all the practice, so too did Leadbelly discover some of his defining interests: women, liquor, and fighting. But he simultaneously took in an eclectic variety of musical influences, and also grew to see his talent as not merely a fun hobby but his ticket out of poverty and racial segregation…

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly and his second wife, Martha, Wilton, Connecticut, 1935. Radio Adelaide

17. He fathered two children by the age of 16, and local outrage forced him to go and seek his fortune

As his socially-ascendant parents no doubt feared, the influence of Shreveport rubbed off on young Leadbelly. Aged 15, with hardly any income, he fathered his first child, but instead of learning from the experience he was a father again within the year. Both were, of course, out of wedlock, and locals were outraged at Leadbelly’s gung-ho approach to the fairer sex and fatherhood. Coupled with his parents’ relatively good social standing, the pressure on the family was intense from all sides. But, luckily, Leadbelly knew just what he had to do…

‘Soon as my mamma put long pants on me, I flew out the do[or]’, Leadbelly later remembered. In the face of the scandal, Leadbelly simply gathered up his instruments and headed into the sunset to become a travelling minstrel. In the most romantic of all music stories, he fed himself for the next few years by playing shows in every town he arrived at. When times were tough, he fell back on his other area of expertise, agricultural labour. Of his early travels, Leadbelly once boasted that he would ‘make it’ with 10 women a night.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Poster for the 1976 Leadbelly biopic, neatly summarising his fearsome reputation. Shadow and Act

16. His great physical strength was as notorious as his short-temper

It wasn’t just a musical legacy that Leadbelly left in his wake in his early wandering years. Almost as legendary as his wonderful performances across the South was Leadbelly’s incredible strength, which he displayed as an infrequent farm labourer. It is said he could pick 1, 000lb of cotton in a single day, putting the other labourers to shame as he strolled off in search of his next gig. Although not especially tall – around 5’8, by most accounts – Leadbelly was built like the proverbial brick outhouse, and woe betide the man who crossed him (however unintentionally).

For Leadbelly had one of history’s shortest fuses to go with his incredible strength. Exacerbated no doubt by the amount of booze he quaffed and the burning injustice of the Jim Crow South, Leadbelly would savagely attack anyone who displeased him, and even when outnumbered he usually came out on top. Unfortunately, at times his early shows resembled later punk rock concerts in the level of violence doled out to audiences, which made venue-owners understandably wary of hiring him. As the man himself explained, ‘when I play, the women would come around to listen and their men would get angry’.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
The only known photograph of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Chicago, 1926. Pinterest

15. He served as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guide and ‘minder’ around Dallas

During these early minstrel years, Leadbelly fell in with another young travelling bluesman known as Blind Lemon Jefferson. So-called because he had lost his sight during childhood, Jefferson was another African-American musician eking out a living on the poverty line. It was inevitable that the pair’s paths would cross, and they began performing together around Dallas, Texas. Jefferson’s eyesight meant that he needed a guide at all times, and this role was ably filled by the strapping, slightly older kid from Louisiana. Though at least 4 years younger than him, Jefferson was an important influence on Leadbelly’s musical development.

According to Leadbelly, Jefferson did not let his disability get in the way of having a good time. Drinking, gambling, and hitching rides on trains, at Silver City Leadbelly remembered that ‘we had twenty-five or thirty girls each out there’. Unfortunately, though, what should have been a mutually profitable partnership came to an abrupt end when Leadbelly’s legal troubles began. While Jefferson went on to sell a million records in the 1920s, before his untimely death aged 36, Leadbelly’s temper and penchant for violent retribution was to land him a succession of jail terms. What could have been!

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
A chain gang in Macon, Georgia, 1937. Fine Art America

14. He was sent to a chain gang for carrying a pistol, but escaped by outrunning the guards’ dogs

Ill health curtailed Leadbelly’s travelling blues career for a time, and he returned to Bowie County and promptly got married. But once he was better, he returned to his raucous itinerant (and, nonetheless, womanising) lifestyle, and in 1915 received his first conviction. Embroiled in another bar fight in Texas, Leadbelly punched a man in the face, pulled a pistol, then pistol-whipped an onlooker. His parents sold the farm to pay for legal representation, but in vain: Leadbelly received 30 days’ hard labour on a chain gang and a $73 fine, which he could barely afford to pay.

But the chain gang in Harrison County, Texas, only had him for a couple of days. As soon as the guards’ backs were turned, Leadbelly did a bolter, somehow outrunning and outfoxing the fearsome prison dogs on his tail. Finding his way back to Bowie County, Leadbelly adopted the pseudonym Walter Boyd, and found work as a sharecropper for the next few years. His public musical endeavours were kept to a minimum at this time, but living as an outlaw gave him a litany of experiences to immortalise in song. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t stay out of trouble for too long…

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
An inmate at Imperial State Farm (now Central Unit), where Leadbelly was sent for murder, with the daughter of Captain Veale, c. 1908. Wikimedia Commons

13. In 1917, he was sent to prison again… for killing a relative

On December 13th 1917, Leadbelly made his way to a dance in Texas, still under the name of Walter Boyd. As was his custom, the bluesman was armed. At the party, Leadbelly ran into Will Stafford, one of his relatives, but details of what happened next are extremely sketchy. Some say that others were taunting Stafford about a woman, or that the two relatives entered a heated argument over the same lady. All accounts agree that Stafford pulled a gun, and the quick-thinking Leadbelly shot him through the forehead. Leadbelly maintained his innocence, but was sentenced to 30 years’ incarceration.

It’s hard to determine exactly what happened that night, let alone whether Leadbelly was actually guilty of the murder. But there are a few elements that ring true with what we know of his biography. A drunken brawl; firearms; an assailant who acted first and thought later. And, of course, the importance of women to the disagreement. As Leadbelly himself lamented in Fannin Street, women were often to be his downfall: ‘My mama told me/ “Women in Shreveport, son/ Gonna be the death of you”‘. Either way, Leadbelly was sent to Imperial Farm (now Central Unit), Sugar Land, Texas.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Inmates at Central Farm with the governor, Captain Veale, c.1908. Wikimedia Commons

12. In prison, he got the nickname ‘Leadbelly’, but no one quite knows why

He walked into Imperial Farm as Huddie or Walter, and emerged as Leadbelly. That is all we know for certain about the nickname. Some say that it was simply a play on the surname, Ledbetter, which sort of sounds like ‘Leadbelly’. Another prosaic suggestion is it was a tribute to Leadbelly’s incredible strength, which enabled him to impress in the prison’s manual labour programme. More plausibly, Huddie’s nickname has also been attributed to his toughness, for he certainly made a big splash amongst his fellow inmates (see number 11 on this list). But why the reference to his belly, specifically?

Two other theories are much more logical. One is that he could drink the most unpalatable and life-threatening moonshine brewed up on the sly in prison bathtubs at Imperial Farm without harming himself, as if his belly were indeed made of lead. The other legend says that he was once shot in the stomach with a shotgun, and lived to tell the tale. Hence, he had a belly full of lead. We will never know for certain, but this legend-spinning and folklore would delight the man himself, many of whose songs were reinterpreted folk-standards and tales.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly wore bandanas and high collars such as this one in New York, 1942, to cover up the massive scar on his neck. Wikimedia Commons

11. In jail, he got stabbed in the neck during a knife-fight and almost killed his assailant

Jailhouse Rock may seem dumb and unrealistic, but Leadbelly’s time at Imperial Farm has some peculiar similarities to Elvis’s musical. For he whiled away the long, boring hours cooped up by playing his trusty 12-string guitar and singing to entertain the guards and inmates, who doubtless enjoyed themselves by dancing along to the tunes. Unlike Elvis, however, he also got into a very nasty knife-fight, which nearly cost him his life. Locked up with other violent and foul-tempered men in a pressure cooker of testosterone, it’s unsurprising to learn that Leadbelly was once again in the wars.

The story goes that Leadbelly was jumped by a fellow prisoner with a knife, whom he had doubtless upset in some way. He received a nasty stab to the neck, which would have floored most men. Not Leadbelly. Staying on his feet, Leadbelly wrestled the knife off his attacker and then proceeded to stab him multiple times with his own weapon! The foolish inmate was only saved from being stabbed to death by the timely intervention of guards, who managed to overpower the heavily-bleeding Leadbelly by force of numbers. Leadbelly? More like Leadneck.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Pat M. Neff, Governor of Texas, c.1915-20, probably photographed in Texas. Flickr

10. In 1925, Leadbelly literally sang his way out of prison

At the time of Leadbelly’s incarceration, Pat Morris Neff (1871-1952) was in his last days as governor of Texas. A progressive politician who took a keen interest in the prison system and convicted criminals in the Lone Star State, Neff several times he took his family for a picnic at Imperial State to hear Leadbelly perform. Sensing an opportunity, with his sentence nearing its minimum 7-year term, Leadbelly smartly decided to write a song to Neff pleading for a pardon, which he played with great theatre every time Neff visited according to the governor’s 1925 autobiography.

The song, entitled Please Pardon Me, had the unsubtle refrain, ‘[if I] had you, Governor Neff, like you got me/ I’d wake up in the mornin’, and I’d set you free’. Incredibly, it worked, and Leadbelly received his pardon the day before Neff’s office ended. This bold move is a crucial part of the Leadbelly mythology, but whilst the song did ultimately secure his freedom, Leadbelly had long before decided to behave himself after the infamous knife fight in hope of an early release. Neff, no doubt, would have reviewed the reports of Leadbelly’s good behaviour before approving his pardon.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Picking cotton at Angola Prison Farm, c.1910, where Leadbelly was sent for attempted murder. Angola Museum

9. He was soon back in jail, after trying to murder a man who tried to interrupt his singing

Leadbelly was soon making up for lost time after his release in 1925, and returned to the life of a travelling bluesman and occasional farm labourer. As usual, trouble was never far behind: one night in Oil City, Leadbelly later recalled, a man came up to him from behind, ‘stuck his knife in my neck an’ was pullin’ it aroun’ my throat jes’ tryin’ to cut my head off’. Undaunted, Leadbelly walked to the local police station ‘bleedin’ like a stuck hawg’, and was told never to come back to Oil City again.

In 1930, Leadbelly was once again back in jail. Accounts of what happened are confused, but according to his niece, Viola Batts, Leadbelly happened upon a group of men performing a Negro Spiritual incorrectly near Mooringsport. When Leadbelly took it upon himself to correct their mistakes by joining in, the group took offence at his constructive criticism, and a white member kicked him. Big mistake. ‘You don’t do that to Uncle Huddie’, recalled Viola. ‘That was the end of that —he was out with his knife and started cutting him. And they sent him to Angola [Prison Farm]’.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
John A. Lomax (left) and the bluesman Uncle Rich Brown, photographed Ruby Terrill Lomax, Sumterville, Alabama, October 1940. Library of Congress

8. But he again sang his way out after a few years, thanks to John Lomax

Angola Prison Farm, Louisiana, was just as notorious for its brutality in 1930 as it is now. It goes without saying that Leadbelly had been sent there for 10 years not just because of prior convictions but because it was a white man he had stabbed. He’d been tried by a white judge and all-white jury, and his ineffective lawyer was, of course, also white, and Leadbelly memorialised the injustice in his song, The Shreveport Jail: ‘[your lawyer] Get some of your money/ Come back for the rest/ Tell you to plead guilty/ For he know it is best’.

Though directing Please Pardon Me to the Governor of Louisiana failed, Leadbelly was to enjoy an enormous slice of luck. For in the early 1930s the pioneering musicologist, John Lomax, was touring the South to record African-American music with his son, Alan. Naturally they heard talk of the incredible singing convict at Angola, and paid Leadbelly a visit. With his knowledge of over 500 traditional numbers, Leadbelly was an invaluable, living cultural artefact, and a mixture of Lomax’s persistent intervention and cost-cutting exercises at prisons during the Great Depression saw Leadbelly once more a free man in 1934.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly performs with Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, and Alcide Pavageau, Stuyvesant Casino, New York, June 1946. Library of Congress

7. He moved to New York, and (briefly) got the exposure his music deserved… at a cost

Upon his release, Leadbelly was taken under Lomax’s wing, and performed at a meeting of the Modern Language Association at Bryn Mawr College. Lomax brokered a much-criticised deal with Leadbelly, which saw him take two-thirds of the singer’s earnings from his music and concerts. Heading north, Leadbelly toured colleges including Harvard, and the ‘singing convict’ soon garnered great attention in the press, chiefly for his controversial history. The New York Tribune once described him as ‘a sweet singer of the Swamplands, here to do a few tunes between homicides’. Sadly, though, Leadbelly earned barely anything during his time with Lomax.

Trying to keep a physically-immense, foul-tempered and hard-drinking convict under control in 1930s New York soon took its toll on Lomax, and after poor record sales the two parted ways within a few months. Leadbelly successfully sued his former manager for withholding his earnings (on the flimsy pretext of stopping Leadbelly drinking his money away all at once), but this acrimony didn’t stop Lomax publishing his book, Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly, in 1936. Leadbelly returned to New York alone, and found acclaim amongst left-leaning folk music fans in Harlem, including the controversial novelist Richard Wright.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
42nd Street & 6th Avenue, Manhattan, 1938, the part of the Big Apple where Leadbelly was once again on the wrong side of the law. Blogspot

6. In 1939, he stabbed a man 12 times, and ended up back in prison aged 51

As a rural Southerner in such a cosmopolitan setting, Leadbelly was something of a curiosity, and was seen by some of the Harlem intelligentsia as the embodiment of authentic African-American experience. 1930s Harlem was a heady mixture of great music, violence, and hedonism. In fact, just the sort of place Leadbelly felt right at home. After availing himself of the opportunities to perform, party, drink, and womanise, Leadbelly was involved in yet another violent incident in March 1939. This time, he was accused of stabbing and slashing a man a dozen times, which he admitted, pleading self-defence.

Fortunately for Leadbelly, this time his victim, Henry Burgess, wasn’t white, and so whilst he was convicted of third-degree assault, the jury urged clemency to the at-least 51-year-old musician. Leadbelly was sentenced to a year on Riker’s Island, but good behaviour saw him released after six months. It was to be the last time he went to jail. At his trial Leadbelly had described himself as a ‘musician, song composer, and dancer’, and he continued to perform whilst the prosecution arranged their case, which suggests that he was determined to add professionalism and reliability to his many-stringed bow.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly performs with another political firebrand, Woody Guthrie, in New York City, December 1940. Open Culture

5. His protest songs included songs about racial segregation on The Titanic and a rabble-rousing attack on Adolf Hitler

Although he described himself as apolitical, Leadbelly’s music tells another story. Life in the Jim Crow South made him a passionate and outspoken advocate of racial equality and rights in song. One of his signature tunes was an interpretation of a folksong about the African-American boxer, Jack Johnson, being refused passage on The Titanic because of his ethnicity, which of course turned out much better for him than those on board. ‘Jack Johnson heard the mighty shock/ Mighta seen the black rascal doin’ the Eagle Rock/…/ Black man oughta shout for joy/ Never lost a girl or either a boy’.

Events over in Europe were also hard to ignore, and the fifty-something Leadbelly even voluntarily signed up to go and fight in WW2. Though never drafted, he also penned a tune against the maniacal Adolf Hitler which expressed sympathy for the Jewish victims of his atrocities. ‘When Hitler started out, he took the Jews from their homes/ That’s one thing Mr. Hitler you know you done wrong’. It also seems that Leadbelly saw in this common enemy a chance for American people of all colours to unite: ‘We American people say “Mr. Hitler you is got to stop!”‘

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly and his iconic 12-string guitar, New York, 1940s. Washington Post

4. Leadbelly was the undisputed master of the 12 string guitar, which his great bulk dwarfed

The prevailing image of Leadbelly in popular culture is a big man playing a 12-string guitar. As any guitarist will tell you, 12 strings are infinitely harder to play than 6, and Leadbelly’s choice of instrument is a testament to his immense talent. Though he first played a standard classical guitar, Leadbelly’s physical vastness actually made the smaller instrument harder to play and look comically small in front of him. Still, lucky he was gifted enough to adapt to the demands of the bigger 12-string. His prowess earned him the title, ‘King of the 12-String Guitar’ in his own lifetime.

Some music historians have claimed that Leadbelly adopted the 12-string during his time with Blind Lemon Jefferson, but whilst there is no doubt of the latter’s great influence on him, it is unknown exactly when he first started playing the instrument. Another story has it that Leadbelly was impressed by a Mexican guitarist busking with one, and made it his mission to become as accomplished. The instrument was also key to Leadbelly’s signature sound, as the greater number of strings allowed him to incorporate a walking bass line into his songs. Debate still rages over which tuning he used.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly in 1940s New York, where he brought the songs he wrote back in his wandering days to a wider audience. Rock n Roll Hall of Fame

3. Leadbelly was one of the first black musicians to tour Europe

In the last few years of his life, Leadbelly achieved not only critical acclaim but moderate financial security for the first time. He proved a big-hit in Los Angeles, though he failed to secure any commissions for Hollywood films, and recorded a number of songs at the city’s cutting-edge studios. At the same time, Lomax’s work in collecting traditional African-American music was finally meeting with mainstream approval. Leadbelly’s encyclopaedic repertoire of African-American music thus made him more popular than ever, and he was even making waves in Europe, with A Tribute of Huddie Ledbetter published in England in 1946.

In 1949, demand was such that he became one of the first black musicians to go on tour in Europe. Modern technology meant that his music preceded him there: the BBC recorded a dozen of his songs in 1938, and the increased presence of Americans in Europe during WW2 must have increased awareness of his songs and legend. Unfortunately, he fell ill in France (where people weren’t sure what to make of him), and was diagnosed with Lou Gehring’s disease. Leadbelly returned to the US before the end of the scheduled tour, to the eternal dismay of European blues fans.


Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Leadbelly’s gravestone, Mooringsport, Louisiana. Mapio

2. Unrecognised in his lifetime, Leadbelly lived the most blues of lives until his death at the remarkable age of at least 60

Despite this troubling diagnosis, Leadbelly played a smattering of shows back on home soil in 1949. Sadly, Leadbelly breathed his last on December 6 1949 in New York, at the remarkable age of at least 60. It’s something of a miracle that this bon viveur and pugnacious man lasted so long. His final show, appropriately enough, was a tribute to John Lomax at the University of Texas at Austin: Leadbelly thus closed the curtain on his remarkable career by memorialising the man who paved the way (however selfishly) for his eventual success on one of his old stomping grounds.

Drinking, womanising, fighting, and in near-constant trouble with the law, the tale of a flawed musical genius making his way through the Jim Crow South and living hand to mouth makes Leadbelly’s biography the archetype of the blues myth. Despite seeing his peers and less-talented musicians make it big, despite all the setbacks and legal troubles, despite the oft-crippling poverty associated with pursuing his music, Leadbelly would not be beaten down. Whether or not you like blues or folksong, Leadbelly’s dogged determination and dedication to his art are an example to us all.

Leadbelly was the Ultimate Hardcore Blues Musician
Barely a year after Leadbelly’s death, The Weavers had a number-one hit with his signature tune, ‘Goodnight, Irene’. NASSL

1. His influence on blues and popular music cannot be overstated

Along with the astonishing myth, we have the music to remember Leadbelly by. His songs helped provide the blueprint for some of the 20th century’s most important popular music. Leadbelly’s popularity in England, for example, made him a significant influence on The Beatles, who in turn have influenced countless other bands after them. In fact, in the blunt assessment of George Harrison, ‘no Lead Belly, no Beatles’. His folk numbers, and friendship with Woody Guthrie, paved the way for the folk-blues revival of the 1960s which saw artists as culturally significant as Bob Dylan make their name.

Leadbelly popularised traditional numbers such as House of the Rising Sun and Black Betty that went on to make careers for subsequent artists. Months after Leadbelly’s death, The Weavers had a number one hit with a cover of his version of Goodnight, Irene (albeit censoring some of the more controversial verses). Leadbelly’s music has been covered by a surprising range of artists, including Frank Sinatra, Abba, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is perhaps his greatest tribute: 80 years after his death, the soulful words of a convicted murderer from the Jim Crow South still speak to us.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Brown, Monty, and Marsha Brown. Leadbelly.

Carpenter, Damian A. Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and American Folk Outlaw Performance. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Chilton, Martin. “Lead Belly: The Musician who Influenced a Generation.” The Daily Telegraph, June 15, 2015.

Dicaire, David. Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999.

Lomax, John A. Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Lomax, John A. Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

Lornell, Kip, and Charles Wolfe. The Life and Legend of Leadbelly. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.

Oliver, Paul. The Story of the Blues. New York: Chilton, 1969.