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Leadbelly with accordion

Leadbelly [ ˈlɛdbɛli ] (also: Lead Belly ) (born  January 20, 1889 as Hudson "Huddie" William Ledbetter in Mooringsport , Louisiana ; †  December 6, 1949 in New York ) was an American blues singer . Leadbelly played various instruments such as the accordion , mandolin , piano, and harmonica ; his favorite instrument was a twelve-string guitar .


Leadbelly learned his vigorous speaking style while singing for a few years in the harsh red-light districts of Shreveport and Dallas . He was sentenced to prison for the first time in 1916 for assault and in 1918 in Texas for 30 years of hard labor for murder. Governor Pat Neff is said to have pardoned Leadbelly after he made his request in the form of a song while visiting prison. In fact, in 1925, Leadbelly was released early from prison for good conduct.

Five years later, he was arrested again for robbery and attempted murder in Louisiana. In 1933, folklore researcher John Lomax and his son Alan roamed Louisiana's prisons to record African-American music for the Library of Congress . A year after he had made the first two recordings with Leadbelly, this was pardoned on the initiative of John Lomax.

Leadbelly came to New York in 1935 and quickly made a name for himself within the white, left-wing intellectual artist scene. Here he came into contact with white folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger . Despite his great influence on white folk music of the 1940s and 1950s, he was denied financial success. In the late 1940s he tried his luck in France and spent some time in Paris . On his first European tour in 1949, he fell ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and died a few months later in New York.


Leadbelly performing at the National Press Club, Washington, DC Photograph by William P. Gottlieb

Leadbelly's recordings include around 170 songs and shouts. Songs from Leadbelly have been picked up and interpreted by a wide variety of artists, such as Cotton Fields from Creedence Clearwater Revival on their 1969 album Willy and the Poor Boys . Some of his compositions became successful top 10 hits like Goodnight Irene in the interpretation of the Weavers (1950), Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan (1956) or Black Betty by Ram Jam (1977).

Leadbelly also interpreted numerous songs that can already be classified as traditionals. One such song , which has become the standard of this musical genre and has been widely interpreted, is Midnight Special , the song of a prisoner, which in the chorus mentions a train that passes his prison at midnight. Midnight Special was incorrectly attributed to Leadbelly by music researchers Lomax. In fact, there are text recordings from other sources from 1905 or earlier sound recordings with other interpreters.

In 1980 Leadbelly was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame , followed by induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 .

From 1993 his work received even more attention: the band Nirvana released their live album MTV Unplugged in New York that year, the last track of which was entitled Where Did You Sleep Last Night on Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter's adaptation of the American folk song In the Pines (also "Black Girl" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night") is based.


The film biography Leadbelly addresses the singer's suffering from the 1920s to 1940s, as well as his music as an expression of resistance to oppression, imprisonment and forced labor. The 126-minute long strip was shot in 1976 by the American photographer, director, poet, composer and civil rights activist Gordon Parks . The script is by Ernest Kinoy. Leadbelly is played by Roger E. Mosley in this film .

In the movie A Lot of Trouble , Johnny Knoxville's character Eddie Leadbetter was named after Huddie Ledbetter, who was also often in conflict with the law.


  • Charles Wolfe, Kip Lornell: The Life and Legend of Leadbelly. HarperCollins, New York NY 1992, ISBN 0-06-016862-5 .
  • Tiny Robinson, John Reynolds (Eds.): Leadbelly - A Life in Pictures. Steidl, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-86521-459-1 .

Individual evidence

  1. This writing variant is less common in German-speaking countries. Leadbelly is said to have used it himself, and this version can also be found on his tombstone .
  2. There are different details about the date of birth and death. The dates given here correspond to those on the Leadbellys tombstone. For example, on a website for Leadbelly ( Memento from July 21, 2011 in the Internet Archive ), the year of birth 1885 can be found. The same year can be determined from information on the cover of a record compilation published in Germany (Bellaphon BJS 4035 [no year, approx. 1980] ) calculate. There, the year of death is given as 1941. The year of birth 1888 is mentioned on lastfm.de and many other websites. The 15th and 29th January are also often found as birthdays.
  3. Archived copy ( memento of the original from January 23, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.leadbelly.org
  4. Midnight Special
  5. ^ Deutsches Filminstitut: I am you , announcement of the first comprehensive Gordon Parks retrospective in Europe in November 2017, accessed on November 25, 2017.
  6. ^ Film database IMDb: Entry "Leadbelly (1976)" , accessed on November 25, 2017.
  7. Background information on Lots of Trouble

Web links