Huddie Ledbetter has been called the king of the 12-string guitar. He's also known as one of the greatest repositories of American folk music. Most called him by his nickname, Leadbelly. The Louisiana-born singer knew so many songs, one scholar said, it would have been impossible to record them all. But, fortunately, a good number of Leadbelly songs were recorded, including his signature melody, "Goodnight Irene."
Huddie Ledbetter knew something about hard labor. In his 20s, he picked cotton for a living. During his time in prison, he worked on chain gangs. The musician's sturdy build earned him the nickname "Leadbelly," says Shane Kalene, editor of the Lead Belly Letter.
"I think, quite honestly, he was given the name because he appeared to be working in the broiling sun with his shirt off, as all the convicts did. He was a stocky football-like looking man, short, squat, full torso; and I think Leadbelly was just an instant revelation to someone."
As a kid, Leadbelly played several instruments. But around 1910, at the age of 21, he bought himself a $12, 12-string Stella brand guitar, rare in those days, and that's what he stuck with. He played and sang ballads, blues and dance tunes, like this one about moonshine whiskey.
Leadbelly's earliest gigs were at country square dances or suki jumps. At these events, he studied the older pros and learned hundreds of traditional Southern folk songs. One of these was "Irene," later retitled "Goodnight Irene."
Leadbelly always said it was his uncle who taught him "Irene," but Kalene says it's unlikely that Leadbelly's uncle actually wrote the original song.
"'Irene,' we think pretty accurately reported, written in about 1888, but it was written by a black man from Dayton, Ohio, gentleman named Gussie Davis. It was picked up by the minstrel shows who traveled the country. It was probably sung in Shreveport where Leadbelly's uncle, who was a musical man himself, brought it home, and it was in the air."
"He changed everything he ever sung," says folk singer Pete Seeger, who first heard Leadbelly sing when he was a teen-ager. Years later, Seeger and his group The Weavers recorded "Goodnight Irene." Seeger says Leadbelly must have made a few changes to the original tune.
"I've seen in a book the words with a completely different tune printed way back in the 19th century, but not the exact same words, just the chorus and maybe the first verse. He added verses, and he completely changed the tune."
Changing old songs into new ones was something Leadbelly may have picked up during the many years he spent in prison. Over the course of nearly 25 years, he served four different sentences: two for assault, one for attempted homicide and one for murder. This gave him lots of time to listen to, and learn, the music of older inmates.
"He was exposed to an awful lot of old songs because prison time is somewhat frozen," Mr. Kalene says. "People go in there with whatever baggage and songs and so on they brought in with them. He was exposed to prisoners and their music who had been locked up many, many years earlier, and so he wasn't necessarily exposed to the more newer things as fully and richly as he was exposed to the more traditional."
That was good news for a man named John Lomax. In the 1930s, Lomax worked for the Library of Congress. His job was to make field recordings of folk music, mostly black folk music, of which there is little documentation. To find music untainted by time, Lomax often did his digging behind prison walls. When he arrived at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola in 1933, everyone told him that an inmate named Leadbelly was the one to meet. So Lomax invited Leadbelly into the warden's office and asked him to play. Leadbelly agreed. He played several songs, including "Irene," which Lomax recorded three times.
Lomax knew immediately that he'd found a genuine source of the complex folk tradition he was looking for.
"A great many of Leadbelly's songs bear John Lomax's name as a co-composer," says music historian Charles Wolfe is co-author of "The Life and Legend of Leadbelly." He says John Lomax didn't exactly help Leadbelly sing his way out of prison, as some have claimed, but he says Lomax did help further Leadbelly's musical career. In 1934, Leadbelly and his wife became housekeepers for the Lomax family in New York City. In return, John Lomax became Leadbelly's manager and promoter. One of Leadbelly's first billings read, `Negro Folk Songs and Ballads, presented by John Lomax and Alan Lomax with the assistance of a Negro from Louisiana.'"
Wolfe says Lomax often created a performance atmosphere that encouraged titillation rather than respect.
"He had him dress up in overalls and a big straw hat," Mr. Wolfe says. "At one point he was actually sitting on a bale of hay. At another point later on, he was actually presented on stage in a prison convict costume."
Critics refer to Leadbelly as `the swamp singer' and `the murderous minstrel.' Wolfe says this might explain why Leadbelly sang "Irene," usually twice, at virtually all of his performances.
"One of the reasons he liked 'Goodnight Irene' was that it represented to him the fact that his music was not all the rough-and-tumble music that people associated with him, a song that was kind of counter to the image of his own music and his own culture that a lot of whites didn't really understand.
Blacks up north didn't seem to understand Leadbelly, either. The black press labeled him an Uncle Tom, and few blacks attended his concerts. Leadbelly never spoke directly to these criticisms, white or black, but in 1935, he split from John Lomax and tried to improve his image. He always wore a suit with bow ties and wing tips, and you can be certain that he never sat on another bale of hay.
One thing Leadbelly did not change was his commitment to the old folk songs he had learned in Louisiana, particularly "Irene."
"He did do songs like 'Ella Speed,' and he did so songs like the 'Midnight Special,'" Mr Wolfe says. "And he did do work songs like the "Rock Island Line" and "Pick a Bale of Cotton." But whenever he did a concert, he came on singing that song, and left singing that song. Leadbelly knew that it was a beautiful, wonderful, evocative song."
During the 1930s and '40s, Leadbelly shared many of his great songs. His living room was a gathering place for New York folk musicians, including Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and the young Pete Seeger, musicians who would later spark the folk revival of the 1960s. Leadbelly died on December 6th, 1949, just seven months before Seeger and the group The Weavers recorded one of those shared songs, Leadbelly's theme song "Irene."
Released in July 1950, "Goodnight Irene," as it was called, flew to the top of the pop charts.
"It stayed at number one week after week after month after month; like three months," Pete Seeger recalls. "In 1950, everybody knew this song."
Royalties for "Goodnight Irene" have reached the millions, millions that are split between the Leadbelly and Lomax estates. And while Leadbelly is hardly a household name, musicians from across the spectrum, from Harry Belafonte to the late Kurt Cobain, cite him as an influence. Charles Wolfe explains that it is Leadbelly's spirit, the strength with which he sang and played his Stella guitar, that accounts for this widespread appreciation.
"It wasn't only his songs," Mr. Wolfe explains, "it wasn't only his pedigree of coming from a real folk background, but it was that immense passion and drive that he put to his music, that he communicated to everybody, even today on those old records after over 50 years."
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