The Songs of Leadbelly Continue to Captivate the Nation

May 3, 2016

Along the Red River and just north of Shreveport lies the town of Mooringsport, Louisiana. Out of this bucolic and unassuming community came a man who would forever change the face of American music.

Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly as he would come to be known, was born in 1885. His parents were both former slaves, and these humble beginnings filled with old spirituals and field hollers would shape Leadbelly's music throughout his life.

Leadbelly began touring with already well known Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, and this partnership continued until Leadbelly's first murder conviction in 1917 in Texas, after allegedly killing a man in a knife fight.

It was in prison where Ledbetter received the nickname "Leadbelly" based on his incredible strength and endurance. It is said that he could work 12 hours in the Louisiana summer without stopping for food, water, or bathroom breaks. While there in the "Sugarland" jail he wrote the song "Midnight Special," and after singing it for the governor, was issued a full pardon.

He was given a second life sentence at Angola in Louisiana in 1930, this time for stabbing a white man in the stomach. There at Angola, he was discovered by John and Alan Lomax, archivists working for the Library of Congress.

The father-son team was instantly dazzled by Leadbelly's repertoire of blues, country, popular music, spirituals, and field hollers. With their help, he was able to obtain an audience with the governor of Louisiana, and yet again sing his way to freedom. 

After his release, Leadbelly traveled extensively with the Lomaxes. Together they recorded for the Library of Congress, bringing southern black music to northern white audiences. This was the first time many outside of the rural south had heard anything like it, and it sparked a worldwide obsession with the blues that continues to this day.

His legacy to American music is substantial and far reaching, having wrote songs like "Rock Island Line," "Midnight Special," "Black Betty," "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," and "Goodnight Irene." His songs continue to influence nearly every artist that has come after him, including artists as diverse as Jonny Cash, John Fogerty, and Kurt Cobain. 

Leadbelly died in 1949, and is buried underneath a massive monument in Mooringsport, near his boyhood home. His headstone aptly dubs him "The King of the 12 String Guitar," but he was much more than that. He brought the nation's attention  to the cultural, social, and economic state of the American South.

Support for Byway Blues comes from a generous grant by the Entergy Charitable Foundation.