Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, has one of the more exciting (though lesser known) histories of any musician. Born in 1888 to sharecroppers on a Louisiana plantation, his family left for Texas when he was five. He grew up playing music, honed his chops in the red light district of Shreveport, took a 15 year old bride in 1908, and then things actually got interesting for Lead Belly.
He was arrested for carrying a pistol, a big no-no for blacks at this time (1915) in the south. He was sentenced to work on a chain gang, which he escaped from. He hid out near his family’s home in Bowie County, Texas under the alias “Walter Boyd,” until he blew his cover by killing Will Stafford, who he was related to, in a fight over a woman in 1918.
Sentenced to 7 to 35 years at Sugar Land, Lead Belly earned himself a slightly early pardon in 1925 from a governor who campaigned on the promise of no pardons by writing him a religious song and impressing him with his performances. In fact, Governor Pat Morris Neff would bring guests to the prison just to hear him play.
Lead Belly was back in jail by 1930, this time for attempted murder in an incident where he stabbed a white man. While serving time in Angola prison, he caught the attention of musician and recording artist John Lomax, who was visiting the prison grounds. Recording equipment was brought in multiple times, and hundreds of his songs were recorded. After Lomax submitted a petition to the governor, Lead belly was again released just shy of his minimum sentence.
Lead Belly worked as Lomax’s driver while recording albums until music became his sole source of income. He stabbed another man during a fight in Manhatten in 1939, but mounted a successful legal defense with the help of Alan Lomax, the son of the man who helped make him famous.
Today, Lead Belly is remembered for having originally written some of the most well-known songs of the 20th century, and he is also credited with having introduced a broader, traditionally black folk music catalog to white listeners.