Famed musician Huddie Ledbetter aka “Lead Belly” is born in Mooringsport, Louisiana, in the late 1880s. He goes to prison in Texas for murder in 1918. While incarcerated, he wins his early release in 1925 by singing a song for the governor of Texas. Furthermore, his ability to perform a vast repertoire of songs and notoriously violent life makes him quite a legend.
Folklorists John Lomax and Alan Lomax “discover” Lead Belly while they are collecting songs for the Library of Congress. Subsequently, he publishes & records 48 songs. Around 1912, Lead Belly meets Blind Lemon Jefferson, an accomplished street musician, and the pair began playing together. It’s at this point that Lead Belly concentrates on what become his signature instrument: the 12-string guitar.
The Musician Moves North
Lead Belly subsequently ends up in New York and tries to establish himself as a professional musician. It works to an extent, as his music is embraced by the fervent left wing, and he finds himself rubbing elbows with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Unfortunately, in March 1939, Lead Belly is arrested in New York for stabbing a man and served an eight-month sentence. After his release, Lead Belly appears on two radio series—”Folk Music of America” and “Back Where I Come From”—and lands his own short weekly radio show. He also records an album called The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs before moving to the West Coast a few years later.
While in Los Angeles, he signs with Capitol Records and begins some serious recording. As he achieves success, he starts to have health issues he’s diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He tours a little after the diagnosis, but the ALS catches up with him for good in December, and he dies at age 61.
A lesser-known element of the Lomax family’s efforts were the hundreds of snapshots they took along the way, often (but not always) of the singers and musicians in action. Sometimes the curious folklorists captured everyday scenes such as baptisms in ponds, children at play, and prisoners at work. This photograph highlights one the diverse faces behind the field recordings.
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Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress & Biography.com