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Lead Belly

Lead Belly, born Huddie Ledbetter on a Louisiana farm in 1888, won international fame as an interpreter of African- American folk songs and blues. Between 1935 and 1949 he displayed his mastery of his big 12-string guitar and sang folk songs, spirituals, blues and ballads to enthusiastic audiences at universities, nightclubs, political rallies, concert halls and private parties. Lead Belly wrote or rearranged and performed some of the best loved songs still sung today: “The Midnight Special”, “Cottonfields”, “ Rock Island Line”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” — as well as his signature song, “Goodnight, Irene”, which became an international hit in 1950 just eight months after his death and sold 2 million copies.
Lead Belly served time in Texas and Louisiana prisons for murder and assault. He was discovered in the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1934 by John A Lomax, the collector of folk music for the Library of Congress while on a field trip through the South with his son Alan. Lomax immediately recognized Lead Belly as unique, a walking anthology of unwritten African-American music, and after recording him arranged for Lead Belly to come to New York. His arrival created a sensation, with one scribe declaring Lead Belly to be the hottest new act in show business. In 1988 Lead Belly was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame where he was the subject of a major retrospective in 2004. His influence on popular musicians and performers was seminal: Van Morrison, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Jack White, Beck, Nina Simone, Jack White, Peggy Lee — even Miles Davis.

Books by Lead Belly
A Life in Pictures
Other artists