A blues legend in his own right, Huddie Ledbetter displayed a unique musical talent at an early age and had ambition beyond range or scope. Born Hudson William Ledbetter, January 20, 1889, Mooringsport, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, USA, at the age of 13 he had managed to learn to read and write (a very difficult thing to achieve for a black man at the start of the century) and had a substantial grasp on the art of guitar playing and performing.
The teenager spent most of his nights wandering aimlessly through the red light districts and town squares on his home turf, attracting an audience with his own take on popular blues and spiritual music. After his marriage soured in the first decade of the 20th century, LEADBELLY changed his guitar format from 6-string to 12-string, a choice that bettered his career and enabled him to broaden his musical style. He reworked a traditional song called `Irene’, which became one of his most treasured songs, and impressed BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON so much that he decided to teach LEADBELLY slide guitar.
However fame was not forthcoming, and due to his violent outbursts he constantly found himself on the wrong side of the law. In 1917, he was given a life sentence for murder and was sent to Texas State prison, where, ironically, he wrote his best material. His songs became increasingly popular with the prison inmates and governors, and in 1925, the man performed for one particular Texas governor who subsequently pardoned the enigmatic guitarist. When he was released from prison, LEADBELLY tried his best to keep on a straight path by doing odd and regular jobs. He was arrested again in 1930 and sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder.
In Louisiana prison he met JOHN LOMAX (a travelling researcher for the Library of Congress) who was gathering Americana and blues-related music with his son Alan. Lomax was more than impressed with LEADBELLY’s talents and managed to record material on his small portable studio in prison. In 1934, Lomax persuaded the Congress to free the bluesman, and with the aid of father and son, he became a minor hero in the white community. Lomax subsequently booked LEADBELLY for sessions at the “American Record Company”, which brought coherence to his creations with smooth, clean and professionally recorded songs. However, LEADBELLY’s relationship with Lomax was on the rocks due to manipulative and manufactured concerts where he was forced to dress up in a striped prison uniform, ultimately a gimmick to spread his notoriety. Their partnership expired, with LEADBELLY subsequently flitting to New York City in search of a more respectful audience – and that he found.
Members of the bohemian intelligentsia and folk/roots fans created a huge and almost cult following which attracted the attention of Moe Asch, manager of Folkway records. It was here that perhaps the man’s finest works were drawn: songs depicting the horrors of World War II were particularly ahead of their time. He continued to record for Asch and Capitol Records throughout the 40s; he fell ill and died on December 6, 1949. It was said that in his final encore at Texas University he promised the audience he would return, explaining his new doctor would help him make a speedy recovery. Sadly, this was untrue as LEADBELLY died a month later.
Like many blues-folk legends, fame came to LEADBELLY in death: The WEAVERS had a hit single with their rendition of `Goodnight Irene’ in 1951, while skiffle-king LONNIE DONEGAN also had a hit with `Rock Island Line’ in 1957. Most memorably and most recently was when Kurt Cobain & NIRVANA performed a poignant, gut-wrenching version of `Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ on a live album. As always, the legend lives on…
© MC Strong 2000-2010/AS & MCS // rev-up MCS May2013