Tuneage Tutelage - Delta Blues - "Lead Belly"

Sparks Of Insanity By Vinny "Bond" Marini Thursday, January 10, 2008


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This is the first in a series of TUNEAGE TUTELAGE dedicated to the music and musicians of the Delta Blues.

We will lead up to the weekend of May 2nd , 3rd & 4th which is the beginning of the month long Memphis In May celebration and the weekend of the Beale Street Music Festival.

One of the most renowned of the Delta Blues musicians is a man whose name many have heard, but just as many do not realize his contribution to the music of the last 100 years.

Huddie William Ledbetter is better know as Leadbelly or Lead Belly. Just as he has many names, his actual date of birth is also numerous according to the records. Some show January 23, 1988, his gravestone reads January 23, 1889. Other records show January 29, 1885.

There are other sources that state his birth date is January 20th or 21st and his 1942 WW II draft registration, which he helped to fill out, states January 23, 1889.

Whatever his date of birth, he was the only child of Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana and moved with them to Leigh, TX when he was five years old.

Music seemed to be in his blood as he was introduced to the guitar by his uncle, Terrell Ledbetter and became enthralled with the instrument. He also learned to play the accordion, mandolin and piano. After witnessing a Mexican guitarist playing a 12-string guitar he worked to master the instrument.

By the time he was 14 he was playing in the redlight district of Shreveport, LA, known as St. Paul’s Bottom.

He married Aletha “Lethe” Henderson when he was 29 and she was 15. A few years later, Huddie left home to find his living as a musician, working as a laborer between gigs. Legend has it he could pick a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day.

Women were drawn to the young Huddie and later in his life he could “make it with 8 to 10 women a night”. He also once said that when he played “women would come around and their men would get angry”.

This was probably the cause of a confrontation in 1918 when he was put in prison for the murder of one of his relatives, Will Stafford. It was during that time in prison, Hudy wrote the song “Midnight Special”,


A few years into his incarceration, Huddie wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff for a pardon.

Please, Governor Neff, Be good 'n' kind
Have mercy on my great long time...
I don't see to save my soul
If I don't get a pardon, try me on a parole...
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I'd wake up in the mornin' and I'd set you free

Neff liked the song and that combined with good behavior (including entertaining the guards and other prisoners) got him a get out of jail free card.

Huddie journeyed onto the road again finding places to play his music, but his penchant for getting into fights derailed that plan once again. In 1930 during a party in Louisiana Huddie found himself back in jail at the infamous Angola Farm Prison Plantation.

This sentence brought two things to Huddie. First was his nickname “Lead Belly” as a play on his last name and due to his toughness. It is also where he met and was discovered by John and Alan Lomax. The folklorists were traveling the South recording songs for the Library of Congress.

There in the prison they recorded hundreds of his songs using portable recording equipment which to this day reside in the vaults in Washington, D.C.. The Lomaxes took a petition to Governor O.K. Allen who signed a pardon for Lead Belly. They recorded the appeal on the flip side to a recording of the song “Good Night Irene”, one of Lead Belly’s more covered songs.

He traveled to NYC with the musicologists where he performed on college campuses around the region. Lead Belly relocated to NY where he built a reputation on the folk circuit.

During the 1940’s Lead Belly recorded with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry among others.

In 1949 Lead Belly began his first European tour. During that time he fell ill and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

On December 6, 1949 he died in NYC and his body was brought home to the Shiloh Baptist Church in Mooringsport, LA.

During his life Lead Belly earned fame but not riches. His catalog of music he shared with the world numbers over 500. A year after his death THE WEAVERS put “Good Night Irene” at #1 on the music charts.

Lead belly is known as “The King Of The 12-String Guitar” and was elected into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988 in the Early Influence Category. During his introduction, Pete Seeger said of The Weavers putting "Good Night Irene" at #1 on the charts, “It’s a poor tragedy he didn’t live another six months, because all his dreams as a performer would have come true.”

The reach of Lead Belly can be felt in folk, blues, rock, punk, children’s music and more.

The opening lines of “Astral Weeks”, by Van Morrison are “Talkin’ to Huddie Ledbetter, Showin’ pictures on the wall…”

Morrison has stated in a Rolling Stone Magazine interview that he owned a picture of Lead Belly and put it up wherever he was living. He also called Lead belly “his guru” during the same interview.

We by no means are attempting to claim all of the songs in this post, attributed to Lead Belly were written by him. Some were written by the others who came from the Delta area, some were traditional songs passed down from generation to generation on the plantations of the south, with origins untraceable.

It is, however, accepted that Lead Belly spread this music to the world...

Lead Belly has been covered by ABBA, Harry Belafonte, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, Lonnie Donegan, The Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Billy Childish (who named his son Huddie), Mungo Jerry, Nirvana, Paul King, Michelle Shocked, Tom Waits, British Sea Power, Rod Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The White Stripes, The Fall, The Doors, Smog, and Raffi, among many others.

Lead Belly has been mentioned in songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Pearl Jam, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Dead Milkmen, Bubbi Morthens (an Icelandic musician), Dulaney Banks and Stone Temple Pilots.

Information gathered from: wikipedia.com; The Lead Belly Foundation; The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame;

More Lead Belly Music:

"Good Night Irene"
Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber

"Black Betty"
Lead Belly


"Gallis Pole"
Lead Belly

"Gallows Pole"

"Bourgeois Blues"
Lead Belly

"When The Whip Comes Down"

"House Of The Rising Sun"
Lead Belly


"Where Did You Sleep Last Night"
Lead Belly

In 1993 on MTV Unplugged, NIRVANA introduced this song to a new generation. Kurt Cobain introduced the song "by my favorite performer...OUR favorite performer..."

And finally, one of our favorite Lead Belly songs...."Black Snake Moan"...originally by Blind Lemon Jefferson and used as the title of the 2007 film starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci

Albums By Lead Belly:

• SHOUT ON!, 1948
• Midnight Special (1991, Rounder Records)
• Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In (1991, Rounder Records)
• Let It Shine on Me (1991, Rounder Records)
• The Titanic (1994, Rounder Records)
• Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (1994, Rounder Records)
• Go Down Old Hannah (1995, Rounder Records)


The music we loved our whole life came from many places...so much of it came from the Delta...Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama...

We hope you discovered something new today...

We will be back soon with another installment in this series...

25 Of Your Sparks

  1. Vinny that was wonderful. If even one person goes out and gets more into Lead Belly, just think how happy that would have made him. And I tell you, when I get to heaven I am giving the Lomaxs a big hug. Great review of a great man. When you influence people from Van the Man to Kurt Cobain, you are really cooking with fire, and Huddie sho nuff did that.

  2. Liz Hill Says:
  3. You know--I was going to just skim and say I'd be back but it sucked me in and I read it all--thanks Bondbaby--neat stuff. I will have to come back to listen to all of the fine music.

    Shoot this post alone has an evening's worth of fine music.


  4. OBLadyBug Says:
  5. Great post dear Vinny. I enjoyed the music and learning about Lead Belly's interesting life. 8 to 10 women in 1 night? I'm sure many men did get angry with him.

  6. Starrlight: Again, you helped inspire this series, so I am glad you enjoyed it...I will give Lead Belly a big hug too! LOL I love the juxtapositions of Gallis Pole and Bourgeois Blues and what they became...

    TURNBABY: You hit on something I am always curious about. Do people who have never heard of our subject actually pay attention to those posts? You MUST come back and listen to the tunes...they tell a remarkable story

    OB: TY darlin' Nancy...hehehehe I am sure he did anger many...but in the end it is about the MUSIC!

  7. Schmoop Says:
  8. Great job Vinny. Rock On my good man. Cheers!!

  9. Maggie Moo Says:
  10. I know this isn't a post about ABBA, but...I love ABBA.

  11. Mara Bee Says:
  12. Wow...I didn't realize he was behind "Gallows Pole"

    Awesome write up!

  13. katherine. Says:
  14. this was great Nancy-Boy.

    I had no idea the extent of his influence.

    One of my favorite songs is the lyrics to Amazing Grace sung to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.

    looking forward to the next in the series!

  15. MATT-MAN: Glad you enjoyed it...i drank heavily while writing it

    MAGS: Well ABBA did one of his songs, so the comment is acceptable hehe

    MARA: TY...Yeah he influenced so much

    HOFFA-GIRL: His influence stretched far and wide...OOO I like that also

    Another one next week....day to be announced..I have to travel to MN the middle of the week

  16. Unknown Says:
  17. They don't make much music like that anymore...

  18. Tug Says:
  19. Dude, you've outdone yourself. wow.

    Years ago there was an old cowboy that would sing House of the Rising Sun for me - just he and his guitar; one of my favorites ever.

  20. Meribah Says:
  21. Wow. That music just sucks you in and takes you down to the Southern States. I can almost feel the heat! LOL Nice post! :)

  22. Actually, they still do... John Prine, Charlie Musslewhite, Derek Trucks, Taj Mahal, A grey-haired kid who won a TV show...and many others...problem is the record companies only want to put out pop and rap

    TUG: Blushing..ty ty tyvm...

    MERI: THAT it does ....that it does....

  23. Anonymous Says:
  24. cute.

    didn't catch it the first time around....

  25. The Teamster Says:
  26. what great music and a great lesson. That's the type of history that needs to be taught in schools.

    As a long time Zeppelin fan, I had no idea that Gallows was Gallis.

    When the "collection" comes out on CD, I'd like to be first in line to buy it. As a Teamster, though, I honor seniority and will buy it when my turn comes up.

    by the way....the mention of Van....have you listened to his daughter Shana?

  27. Travis Cody Says:
  28. Some of the music wouldn't play for me. I'll definitely keep trying because this is good stuff.

    I really enjoyed this. It makes me remember how pervasive is the influence of the deep south blues...it seeps into so many different styles of music.

  29. HOFFA GIRL: hehehehe

    TEAMSTER: OOOOOO an age slam...but I am loving you here and adding your vast knowledge...no I have not heard Shana, but will certainly look her up...
    psssssssst....Memphis In May! Great birthday gift, huh?

    TRAVIS: Man, I checked them all out last night and they worked, yet today I see what you mean...
    Hopefully I can fix...

  30. I found your blog through Starrlight's, and she was right - this is an incredible tribute to an amazingly talented man.

    I wasn't even aware that ZZ Top had done a version of "Black Betty." I had always only heard Ram Jam's version.

    But, back on the subject, we have to hope that artists - and fans - will continue to pass along the history of some of the great music we all know and love.

  31. Mimi Lenox Says:
  32. I appreciate the work you do to pull all of this together, Vin.

    You've been tagged by The Queen of Memes. Long live the dungeon.
    No Autographs Please - The Band Meme

  33. RWA: Hope you come over again...and thanks for the compliment...I have tried to pass on the music...find some other Tuneage Tutelage's along my right side-bar

    MIMI: TY dear...but ummm already did that one dear

  34. DrillerAA Says:
  35. I just stumbled onto this site through a link from Trav's Thoughts. Very nicely done. I love the Ledbelly information and music. I forgot all about the CCR cover of "Midnight Specail." I do remember Johnny Rivers doing a cover in the early to mid-sixties, which was one of my early favorites.
    Very nice site. I've added it to my favorites so that I don't forget it and I will be back.

  36. Maybe it is my love of biographies and having to know where everything came from or how it originated, but I love these posts.

  37. Mimi Lenox Says:
  38. OK. OK. I give.
    I must admit I skimmed this also (as Turn admitted) but this morning as I drank my first cup of yummy coffee I started reading again and wham (!) you drew me in with this story. THANK YOU for this wonderful recap of Lead Belly's life. The influence is astounding. What a colorfully brilliant life he led (no pun intended). I know several musicians who will love this post. Emailing it now.
    This is a keeper. Great job, Vinny.

    P.S. I love the way Katherine calls you Nancy-Boy. The girl's got guts.

  39. Pickledeel Says:
  40. Now that is what a Blog post should be - informative and interesting. I learned a lot and enjoyed the learning. Well done and thanks.

  41. DRILLERAA: Thanks for stopping by...hope you enjoyed your stay

    MIMI: Good for you...a music lover should learn of these things...
    OH, you mean Teamster-Chick?

    PICKLED EEL: And thank you Sir


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