Remembering Lead Belly
“Huddie Ledbetter, better known to the music world as ‘Lead Belly’ [aka Leadbelly] was born January 20, 1889*, in Mooringsport, Louisiana (near Shreveport) [died December 6, 1949]…Lead Belly first tried his hand at playing music when he was only two years old. As a young man he was introduced to the guitar by his Uncle Terrell Ledbetter and from that moment on he was electrified by the guitar.
He mastered that instrument and just about any instrument he laid his hands on. He learned to play the accordion, mandolin and piano. Which gave hime a wide knowledge of various musical instruments and rhythm. It has been said that one day Lead Belly witnessed a Mexican guitarist playing the twelve string guitar which struck his interest in mastering the unusal instrument…” —LeadBelly.org
Excerpt From Allmusic.com by William Ruhlmann:
Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, was a unique figure in the American popular music of the 20th century. Ultimately, he was best remembered for a body of songs that he discovered, adapted, or wrote, including “Goodnight, Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” “The Midnight Special,” and “Cotton Fields.” But he was also an early example of a folksinger whose background had brought him into direct contact with the oral tradition by which folk music was handed down, a tradition that, by the early years of the century, already included elements of commercial popular music. Because he was an African-American, he is sometimes viewed as a blues singer, but blues (a musical form he actually predated) was only one of the styles that informed his music. He was a profound influence on folk performers of the 1940s such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who in turn influenced the folk revival and the development of rock music from the 1960s onward, which makes his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, early in the hall’s existence, wholly appropriate…
Leadbelly’s fame began to increase almost immediately after his death. In 1950, his song “Irene,” now called “Goodnight, Irene,” was recorded by the Weavers, a folk group including Pete Seeger and other musicians acquainted with Leadbelly, and became a number one pop hit, with hit covers by such pop singers as Frank Sinatra and a number one country recording by Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. The Weavers then adapted a Leadbelly song called “If It Wasn’t for Dickey” (itself based on the Irish folk song “Drimmer’s Cow”) into “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” which they took into the Top 40 in 1951 and which Jimmie Rodgers covered for a Top Ten hit in 1957. In 1956, the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group reached the Top Ten in the U.K. and the U.S. with their recording of “Rock Island Line,” taken directly from Leadbelly’s version, setting off the British skiffle fad that inspired many later British rock stars, including the Beatles. (Johnny Cash scored a Top 40 country hit with his version in 1970.) “The Midnight Special” in Leadbelly’s version had first reached the charts for the Tiny Grimes Quintet in 1948. Paul Evans had a Top 40 hit with it in 1960, and Johnny Rivers also took it into the Top 40 in 1965. Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields” (aka “Old Cotton Fields at Home”) was a Top 40 hit for the Highwaymen in 1961. All of these songs have become standards. When the folk revival hit in the late ’50s, its practitioners frequently covered other songs associated with Leadbelly in arrangements that recalled his.
*Some sources report a controversy about Lead Belly’s birthdate.