Lead Belly

Lead Belly

American bluesman
Date of Birth: 20.01.1888
Country: USA

  1. Biography of Leadbelly
  2. Early Life and Career
  3. Imprisonment and Music
  4. Discovery and Later Life
  5. Legacy

Biography of Leadbelly

Leadbelly, born Huddie William Ledbetter in 1888 (or possibly 1889), was an iconic American blues musician. He was known as the first black musician to perform and record for a white audience. Leadbelly was a complex figure - a rebellious loner, a natural talent, and a controversial troublemaker. However, it was through his songs that the history of American blues was written.

 Lead Belly

Early Life and Career

Leadbelly was born on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was the youngest son of Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter, and had an older sister named Australia. When he was five years old, his family moved to Bowie County, Texas, where they owned their own land.

 Lead Belly

Leadbelly grew up physically strong, working hard in cotton fields, bending horseshoes with his bare hands, and gaining popularity with the ladies. He learned to play the accordion from his father, and his uncle taught him the guitar. Leadbelly later taught himself to play the piano, harmonica, and mandolin. In addition to these talents, he possessed a powerful and beautiful baritone voice.

 Lead Belly

At a young age, Leadbelly married Aletha 'Lethe' Henderson, and they had two children together. When he was just 15 years old, their first child was born. Leadbelly then embarked on a journey as a wandering musician, traveling through Louisiana and Texas. In Dallas, he worked with Blind Lemon Jefferson, a well-known and commercially successful blues performer at the time. However, their partnership was short-lived due to Leadbelly's volatile nature, which led to a fight and his imprisonment.

Imprisonment and Music

Leadbelly's parents had to gather enough money to ensure his prison sentence was not too long. Despite that, he still managed to escape and hide on his family's farm until his father sent him away. Under the alias Walter Boyd, Leadbelly spent several years living with relatives. However, Boyd also became involved in a murder case, resulting in Leadbelly serving a 30-year prison sentence.

During his 7 years on the chain gang, Leadbelly continued to play and sing. His talent and powerful voice caught the attention of prison guards and even Governor Pat Morris Neff, who eventually granted him a pardon. Leadbelly may have received his nickname, which translates to "lead belly," during this time. Despite his incarceration, he continued to face the hardships with better physical health than other prisoners.

After his release, Leadbelly returned to Louisiana and worked as a truck driver during the day. In the evenings, he performed, earning extra money and attracting female attention. However, he still found himself involved in criminal activities, either as a victim or perpetrator. Despite avoiding prison until 1930, Leadbelly was eventually imprisoned again, this time for attempted murder, resulting in a 10-year sentence.

Discovery and Later Life

While in prison, Leadbelly was discovered by John Lomax, a collector of American folk music. Lomax began recording Leadbelly's songs in prison, which ultimately led to an early release, possibly aided by a song appealing to the governor. After his release, Leadbelly spent several years working as Lomax's driver, bodyguard, and assistant.

By 1935, Leadbelly and Lomax had parted ways. Leadbelly traveled to New York City, but by then, the interest in traditional folk music and blues had waned, replaced by jazz and swing. Leadbelly faced additional legal troubles and spent short periods in jail. He attempted to break into the jazz scene but was ultimately unsuccessful.


Leadbelly is considered one of the most significant musicians in the country and a towering figure in the blues genre. He incorporated various songs from African American culture into his repertoire, ranging from spirituals to gangster ballads. Leadbelly's music spanned genres and touched the lives of many. He passed away on December 6, 1949, at the age of 61, from Lou Gehrig's disease. Leadbelly was buried in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery, and a memorial was erected in his hometown of Shreveport.