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Leadbelly: Penitentiary Blues

Leadbelly is a legendary figure in both the fields of Folk music and the blues. Leadbelly’s life is the stuff of American popular legend. He was a hard man who was convicted of murder and spent much of his early adult life in prison. While in prison, he worked in chain gangs doing hard labor.

Leadbelly is remembered for his twelve-string guitar virtuosity and his catalogue of songs, both blues and folk that he either wrote or collected on his travels in the early days of the 20th century. Among Leadbelly’s most famous songs are: “Good Night Irene,” “Black Betty,” “Midnight Special,” “On a Monday,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” “Green Corn,” and “Stewball.”

Leadbelly was born Huddie Ledbetter in Mooringsport, Louisiana, in 1885. By the time he was five-years-old, his family had settled in Bowie County, Texas. Leadbelly learned the guitar in childhood, and by 1903, he was performing in Shreveport, Louisiana, clubs and steadily honing his craft. The wide range of music which Leadbelly heard in Shreveporthad an indelible influence on his music. In 1912, following the sinking of the Titanic, Leadbelly wrote a song about the ship noting that African-American boxer, Jack Johnson, was denied the right to sail on the ship and was able to live out his life as a result.

In 1915, Leadbelly landed in trouble when he was convicted of carrying a pistol. Three years later, his volatile temper exploded, and he killed one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fistfight over a woman. He was sentenced to imprisonment in the SugarLand prison near Houston, where he served 7 years. A song written for the Texasgovernor and his performances for fellow prisoners helped to earn him an early release. He was released in 1925, but would wind up back in prison at Angola Prison Farm, in 1930, for attempted murder, after he had knifed a white man in a fight. Between his stints in prison, Leadbelly traveled around Texas with blues master, Blind Lemon Jefferson, playing music and acting as Jefferson’s guide.

In 1933, John Lomax of the Library of Congress “discovered” Leadbelly in Angolaand recorded him on primitive recording equipment. Lomax would return the following year with better recording equipment and record hundreds of songs from Leadbelly’s vast repertoire of blues and folk tunes. Later that year, Leadbelly was released for good behavior and accompanied Lomax on several song collecting excursions through the American South.

Later in 1934, Leadbelly landed a recording deal with ARC Records, and recorded blues material. His recordings were commercially unsuccessful, and he returned to Louisiana. In 1936, Leadbelly traveled to New York where he tried to appeal to black audiences in Harlem’s Apollo Theatre by playing the blues. He failed to win over the Apollo audiences, but began to attract attention from the white leftist folk crowd.

In 1939, Leadbelly landed in trouble again, this time for stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan-a crime which landed him in jail again for two years. Upon his release in 1941, Leadbelly became a fixture on the New York folk club scene, appearing with other folk luminaries such as Josh White, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. In 1944, Leadbelly went to Californiawhere he made a series of excellent recordings for Capital Records. Leadbelly contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949 and died later that year in New York City.

Leadbelly’s music is best heard on the compilations, “Last Sessions” (1953), “Sings Folk Songs” (1962), “Leadbelly” (1965), “Midnight Special” (1991), “King of the 12-String Guitar” (1991) and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Leadbelly Legacy Vol 1.” (1996), and “The Definitive Leadbelly” (2008).

This post first appeared on Pop Music Gumbo, please read the originial post: here

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Leadbelly: Penitentiary Blues


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