Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Prison. Folk singer Pete Seeger. The Dry Dock District in Alphabet City. The Library of Congress. Kurt Cobain.
Seemingly unrelated, right? Not exactly.
They are all connected to legendary folk musician Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease on December 6, 1949. If you don’t know who Lead Belly was, you should. His musical style and songs are among the most influential and well known in American culture.
If you like the songs, “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” or “House of the Rising Sun,” then you should know Lead Belly. He is considered a master of deep south folk music and played many instruments though he was most well-known his skill with the 12-string guitar.
Huddie Ledbetter was born sometime between 1885 and 1889 in rural Louisiana, but he spent the last years of his life as a New Yorker, living in an apartment in the East Village at 414 East 10th Street in what was once known as the Dry Dock District (see our previous posts about that area here) from 1938 until 1949. It was in New York City that Lead Belly found a very receptive audience among the emerging activist and folk music community in the Village. In fact, he frequently hosted Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and many other musicians at his apartment on East 10th Street. Though he kept busy in New York as a featured performer on a WNYC radio program and recording songs, he struggled to achieve popular success and was plagued with money troubles.
So, how does someone earn a nickname like Lead Belly? Throughout his life, Huddie spent time in and out of jail, including Angola State Prison. It is assumed that he earned the name while imprisoned there as both a play on his name and a reference to his toughness. During two of his stints in prison his musical gifts earned him early release. He received a governor’s pardon and was released early from Texas State Prison in 1925. It was while he was serving time at Angola that folklorists John and Alan Lomax who were collecting recordings of Southern musicians for the Library of Congress met him. Impressed by Lead Belly’s broad knowledge of traditional songs and musical skill, they helped secure his early release.
Like so many talented artists, he received much greater recognition after his death — a number of artists including Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys released covers of his songs. Lead Belly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by Pete Seeger, who credits Leadbelly with teaching him to play a 12-string guitar and helping his group attain a chart-topping hit in 1950 with his rendition of Lead Belly’s song, “Goodnight Irene.”