Huddie Ledbetter – aka “Lead Belly”
Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, was a unique figure in the American popular music of the 20th century. Ultimately, he was best remembered for a body of songs that he discovered, adapted, or wrote, including “Goodnight, Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” “The Midnight Special,” and “Cotton Fields.”
But he was also an early example of a folksinger whose background had brought him into direct contact with the oral tradition by which folk music was handed down, a tradition that, by the early years of the century, already included elements of commercial popular music. Because he was an African-American, he is sometimes viewed as a blues singer, but blues (a musical form he actually predated) was only one of the styles that informed his music. He was a profound influence on folk performers of the 1940s such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger , who in turn influenced the folk revival and the development of rock music from the 1960s onward, which makes his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, early in the hall’s existence, wholly appropriate.
Huddie Ledbetter was born on the Jeter Plantation near the community of Shiloh, which is in turn near the town of Mooringsport, LA. He was the only son of a sharecropper who moved his family to nearby Harrison County, TX, when the child was about five. Ledbetter attended school from the age of eight to about 12 or 13, after which he worked full-time on the farm his father had managed to buy. He had shown an early interest in music, learning the button accordion as a child and playing in the school band. He later added other instruments, eventually turning primarily to the guitar, having obtained his first one in 1903. By his teens, he was playing and singing for money at local dances.