Glossary entry for
Ledbetter, Huddie

Huddie Ledbetter (b.Jan 29, 1889, Mooringsport, LA; d. Dec 6, 1949, New York, NY) -- also known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly -- was called "The King of the 12 String Guitar". His father was a farmer and musician and mother a part Cherokee Indian. His uncle taught him Cajun accordion and later he learned guitar and harmonica.

He left home in 1906 and hoboed around Louisiana and Texas, working with Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1912. He did time for murder 1918-25, and time for attempted homicide 1930-34. He then recorded extensively on the Library of Congress label and toured the college circuit. In 1942-43 he worked with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Woody Guthrie in the NYC area. He had three marriages and two children from the first one. Among his many songs are "Boll Weevil", "Cotton Fields", "Goodnight Irene", "The Midnight Special", and "Rock Island Line".

"Leadbelly was a man of many facets: minstrel, blues artist, musically adept at several instruments, singer extraordinaire, raconteur and people's songbook" -- Lawrence Cohn

Contributed by Alan Pert, Sydney, Australia

The Smithsonian Institution has released (1996) a CD compilation of Lead Belly recordings made in the studio of Moses Asch in New York 1941-47. There is an acompanying highly informative 25-page booklet.

Lead Belly Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Lead Belly Legacy Volume 1, on Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings. 34 songs, with notes on each. Total time 66:46.

Van fans will recognize Lead Belly's specific influence on Van on traditional standards on the CD such as "In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down," and "Let It Shine On Me."

The quality of the sound makes this CD more accessible to those of us who like myself are not familiar with this type of music, want to learn about it, and have difficulty listening to a "scratchy" sound. If you were curious as to who this guy "Lead Belly" the Man was talking about when he said "I heard Lead Belly and Blind Lemon on the Street where I was born," I'd guess this is as accessible a CD as there is.

Sample, review, or order "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" now at

Here are some bits from the liner notes:

Lead Belly (1888-1949) was born Huddie Ledbetter in Louisiana and during the sixty years of his life became a truly amazing repository for all types of American folk and popular music. He had an amazing capacity for memorizing any song after hearing it once. Lead Belly spent a large portion of his adult life in prison until he was 'discovered' on a Library of Congress trip by John Avery Lomax. Lomax arranged an early release for Lead Belly and took the singer to New York City. Lead Belly travelled with Lomax and his son Alan for a number of years until they parted ways in New York City, a long way from Lead Belly's Louisiana-Texas roots...

It was at this point that Lead Belly met someone else who would prove to be instrumental in his life. Moses Asch (1905-1986) was a radio engineer in New York who had started a small record company, Asch records, to supply local hi-fi stores with recordings of Jewish performers and cantors. Asch was a friend of Sy Rady, a Broadway producer, who introduced him to Lead Belly. Lead Belly was unhappy about the way the Lomaxes presented him to the public. They would stress his prison background, even going so far as to dress him in convict clothes on stage. Lead Belly was a proud man who wanted more than anything to be a musician and if possible a movie star. The way Lead Belly was portrayed to the public also irritated Asch. 'To me, Lead Belly was the most formal human being that ever existed. His clothing was always the best pressed, the best. His shoes were $60 shoes in 1947! Where he might have had much money to come home with, he had to have a cane. Lead Belly treated himself as a noble person, and when he recorded knowing this was for people to understand what he stood for, he recorded exactly the same way.' Asch and Lead Belly understood each other and became friends. Lead Belly's records were the first records Asch made in the folk field and marked the beginning of a long and important career....

Lead Belly made some of the most imporant music of his career in Moe Asch's tiny studio... Major record companies didn't know what to do with him and tried to sell him as a blues musician. Lead Belly's large repertoire included children's play party songs, blues, American folk songs, prison song, and the pop songs of the day. They didn't fit the preconceived notion of a Southern black man with a guitar. It was Asch who let Lead Belly record anythig he wished, and Lead Belly kept coming back to Asch's studio when his flirtations with stardom failed....

This is the first in a series of reissues of the Lead Belly/Asch recordings. It is basically a reissue of the first two of four volumes Asch released in the early 1950's called Leadbelly's Legacy (Folkways 2004 & 2014), put out as a memorial to Huddie. We have take the same songs and released the best possible rendition of each that we could find in the Moses Asch Collection...

Compiler's note: Lead Belly's name has been frequently spelled Leadbelly over the years. We have spelled it Lead Belly at the request of the Ledbetter family. This is the way Lead Belly wanted it. Moses Asch spelled it that way on his earliest recordings of Lead Belly....

Forty years after his death, Lead Belly's songs and style continue to influence folk, blues and rock artists including Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, William Styron, Ben Harper, Keb' Mo, and Dionne Farris... The only surviving Asch masters of Lead Belly are now part of the Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings. For the first time in almost fifty years these original acetates have been carefully remastered and newly annotated. After decades Lead Belly's legendary guitar rings and the bass thumps with the strength of John Henry's hammer.

Contributed by Michael L. Coch

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