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Despite a short professional career, the lessons learned from the mythology around—and performances of—Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, have provided a rich insight into the early development of commercial American folk music. Ledbetter was born in 1888 in Louisiana, and his family relocated to Texas when he was five. In Texas, Ledbetter learned to play the accordion and, by his early twenties, was making a living as a local songster and laborer. During his years performing in Shreveport’s red-light district, Ledbetter learned many styles of music, which contributed to his regional popularity. He was imprisoned in 1915 and escaped, but returned to prison in 1918. He served the minimum term and, in 1925, was released after writing a song to the governor of Texas, Pat Morris Neff. In 1930, Ledbetter was once again imprisoned for attempted murder and, while at the prison farm Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as “Angola”) in 1933, he came into contact with John Lomax, who visited the prison on one of his song collecting expeditions. Lomax returned in 1934 with better-quality recording equipment and arranged, through Oscar K. Allen, the governor of Texas, for Ledbetter’s release.
Coming out of prison during the Depression, by the end of the year Ledbetter had performed during a Lomax lecture at Bryn Mawr University in Pennsylvania, after which he went to New York. Marketed with his tough prison past, Ledbetter played shows in New York and recorded for the American Record Corporation. He attempted performances at clubs in Harlem, but the city’s black audiences were not attracted to Ledbetter’s interpretation of older folk material. He continued with Lomax until payment issues led to a split in March 1935 and Ledbetter returned to Louisiana. On his own, he returned to New York in 1936, appeared in Life magazine in 1937, and was arrested once again in 1939. He worked with Alan Lomax on his radio show, Back Where I Come From, upon his release in 1940 through 1941. He recorded for various labels, traveled to Europe, and in 1949 hosted his own radio show, Folk Songs of America. He died in 1949 in New York City. Ledbetter’s songs, most notably “Goodnight, Irene,” became hits for other musicians and, through the twentieth century, his body of work influenced the work of artists in many genres.