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.
-- The Big Book of Blues : A Biographical