Wednesday, 11 March 2009
History of Blues-3. Leadbelly
Huddie William Ledbetter’s music was the earliest country blues to gain international recognition. The first American to see European success with the style had a life and personality as varied and exciting as the huge repertoire of music he left behind.
As a young man he gained the nickname “Leadbelly”. It is generally agreed he received the moniker during one of his many stints in prison. It may have been a reference to his physical toughness, his ability to drink moonshine, or him taking buckshot lead in the stomach after being shot. Or it may have simply been a play on his name. Blues singer Big Bill Broozny claimed it was because of his tendency to lay around with a “stomach weighed down by lead“ when he was supposed to be working in the chain gang.
He was born on his father’s plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana some time in the late 1880s. Dates vary, with the earliest being in 1885 while his gravestone says 1889. Jan 1888 is currently accepted.
His family moved to Texas when the only child was five. His uncle gave him his first instrument- an accordion- and the boy immediately took to music. He soon turned to guitar and by 1903 he was making a living playing in the red-light district of Shreveport, Louisiana, where he developed his individual style of clear, forceful singing over percussive guitar lines picked and strummed on “Stella”, his trademark 12 string guitar.
His love of music took him to leave the family farm, and his first wife, and in his early 20s he begun wandering Louisiana and Texas, paying his way with the guitar and his notorious capacity to work hard as a labourer. Legend has it that he could pick 1000lbs of cotton a day.
But his fiery temperament and drunken, womanising ways kept landing him in trouble. He first went to prison in 1915 for “carrying a pistol” and he was sentenced to a chain gang. Amazingly, he escaped the shackles and ran across a ploughed field to safety, where he lived in hiding for two years under the pseudonym Walter Boyd.
In 1917 he met another blues musician, Blind Lemon Jefferson, who, although younger, was more masterful of the style than Leadbelly and the man on the run took the role of “lead boy” for Jefferson- shadowing the blind man, guiding him and looking after him on the streets of Dallas. Leadbelly learnt a lot about musicianship and performance from Jefferson.
This wasn’t to last for long though. In 1918 he was imprisoned for shooting Will Stafford- the husband of a cousin- dead, in a fight over a woman. He served only seven years of a thirty year sentence before he was pardoned and released by the infamously hardline governor Pat Morris Neff. When running for governor, Neff had claimed that he would never issue a pardon, but Leadbelly gained a lucky exception in 1925, after impressing the governor with a song he had written especially:
“Please Governor Neff, be good ’n’ kind
Have mercy on my great long time
I don’t see to save my soul
If I don’t get a pardon, try me on parole
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set you free”.
He was free for five years, but in 1930 he was back behind bars, this time in the notorious Angola State Prison for attempted homicide. He had stabbed a white man in the neck.
Fortune came from his incarceration, however, when musicologists John Lomax and son Andy discovered him while trawling the South to record the dying folk songs for the Library of Congress. They recorded hundreds of his songs from a repertoire including prison songs, blues, folk songs, field songs, ballads, children’s songs and others. The Lomaxes ultimately took him to international recognition.
The Lomaxes petitioned governor O.K.Allen for his early release and, once again, Leadbelly was lucky. On August 1st 1934, the musician was once again a free man. He was subsequently taken around college campuses and showcased to students where he and his music were received with fervor.
On New Year’s Day 1935, John Lomax and Leadbelly arrived in New York City where the singin’ murderer drew immense excitement. He became one of the first traditional folk musicians to sing for a city audience and Time magazine made one of their earliest filmed newsreels about him.
The next week he began recording for the American Recording Corporation (ARC), but did not find commercial success from this, possibly due to ARC’s insistence he record his blues and not folk songs.
He split ways with Lomax at the end of February 1935, after Lomax had lost patience with Leadbelly’s temper and aggressive nature. During a disagreement over pay, Leadbelly threatened Lomax with a knife.
After a final stint in jail for stabbing a man in a Manhattan fight, Leadbelly made friends with folk musicians Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Brownie Mcghee and others on NY’s folk circuit. Together they played labour unions and political rallies.
In 1949 he began a European tour with a trip to France but he was unable to complete it. Before completion he was diagnosed with Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. All the muscles in his body began to waste and he could not play without pain.
His last concert was at the University of Texas on June 15th 1949 and he died aged 61 in the December of that year. He is buried at Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery in Mooringsport, Louisiana.
He never enjoyed the fruits of his work. Pete Seeger said: “It’s pure tragedy he didn’t live another six months, because all his dreams as a performer would have come true.”
His influence has been acknowledged by many artists, including The Beatles, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. He has left behind a vast catalogue of songs- over 500- including the most famous Midnight Special, Rock Island Line, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? and Goodnight Irene.