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LEADBELLY

(1888 - 1949)

(born January 21, 1888, Shiloh, Louisiana;
died December 6, 1949, New York, New York)

Leadbelly was born Huddie Leadbetter, January 21, 1888, in Shiloh, Louisiana.  More than any other folk-blues artist of his time, Leadbelly helped expose his race's vast musical riches to white America, and, in the process, helped preserve a folk legacy that has become a significant part of this nation's musical treasury.

Leadbelly was not a blues singer in the traditional sense; he was, rather, more of a songster, that is, one who played blues, spirituals, pop, and prison songs, as well as dance tunes and folk ballads.

Leadbelly certainly led the life of a blues man.  Born and raised in rural Louisiana to hardworking sharecropper parents, he left home as a youth and wandered through Louisiana and Texas.

Though little is known about Leadbelly's early life, it is assumed that sometime around 1915 he met Blind Lemon Jefferson and worked and traveled with the legendary blues man.  By this time, Leadbelly (who played guitar, mandolin, piano, and accordion) had settled on the twelve-string guitar as his instrument of choice.

A large, muscular man who had an explosive temper, Leadbelly had frequent run-ins with the law.  In 1933, at Angola Prison Farm, Leadbelly was discovered by John and Alan Lomax.  At Angola to record folk songs sung by prisoners, the Lomaxes were struck by Leadbelly's powerful voice and rhythmic guitar style as well as his knowledge of black folk songs.  Thanks to the Lomaxes, who petitioned Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen to pardon Leadbelly because of his folk singing resources, Leadbelly went to work for the Lomaxes as a chauffeur and occasional performer.

A year later, Leadbelly had taken a second wife and settled in New York City, where he became a favorite among left-leaning white folk singers of the 1930s.  Leadbelly became friends and musical partners with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger as well as black blues men Sonny Terry and Brownie Mcghee.

From 1934 to his death in 1949, Leadbelly recorded for the Library of Congress and Folkways Records as well as other labels.  Leadbelly was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as one of the music form's chief pioneers.

Robert Santelli -- The Big Book of Blues : A Biographical Encyclopedia



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