Glossary entry for
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 Amazon.com
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
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
More information available at:
Van references in:
Part of the van-the-man.info unofficial website