The Real Story of Huddie Leadbetter 1889 - 1949

Huddie Leadbetter

You have realised that the page "Irene, the truth revealed" is a fiction. I thought you would like to know the true facts about Huddie Leadbetters life and the background to the song Irene Goodnight.

These notes have been taken from other web sites. They seem all to stem from the book:- "The Life and legend of Leadbelly." by Charles Wolf & Kip Lornell, Published by HarperCollins, NY, 1992.

The online Leadbelly Web has many Leadbelly links and much information.

The Lead Belly Society publishes a quarterly Lead Belly Letter.
Contact The Lead Belly Society, PO Box 6679, Ithaca, NY 14851. For info e-mail

Huddie William Ledbetter was born on January 29, 1889 on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was the only child of sharecropper parents Wesley and Sally. Huddie and his parents moved to Leigh, Texas when he was five and it was there that he became interested in music, encouraged by his uncle Terrell who bought Huddie his first musical instrument, an accordion.

Over the years he became fluent on the piano, harp, mandolin and harmonica but he is best remembered for his 12 string guitar. By the age of 18 he had two bastard children and had smashed his father over the head with a poker during an argument.

Though little is known about Leadbelly's early life - he rarely spoke of those days - he left home at 20 and over the next ten years wandered throughout the southwest eking out an existence by playing guitar when he could and working as a laborer when he had to. Sometime around 1915 he met the seminal Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and worked and travelled with him as his "lead boy" (guide, companion and protégé) on the streets of Dallas.

By this time, Leadbelly had settled on the twelve-string guitar as his instrument of choice. He had probably heard the guitar's rich, ringing sound from Mexican musicians who often played in Texas saloons and bordellos. Leadbelly also developed a wonderfully rhythmic guitar style in which he imitated the walking bass figures commonly employed by barrelhouse piano players on Fannin Street, the most celebrated street in Shreveport's red-light district, where Leadbelly was known to have worked.

Huddie Ledbetter was the world's greatest cotton picker, railroad track liner, lover, and drinker as well as guitar player. This assertion came from no less an authority than Huddie himself. Since not everyone agreed with his opinion he frequently found himself obliged to convince them. His convincing frequently landed him in jail.

In 1916 Huddie was jailed in Texas for assaulting a woman. He escaped and spent two years under the alias of Walter Boyd before killing a man in a fight and being sentenced to thirty years hard labor in Texas' Shaw State Prison Farm. After seven years he was released after begging pardon from the governor with a song:

Leddybelly the convict Please, Governor Neff, Be good 'n' kind
Have mercy on my great long time...
I don't see to save my soul
If I don't get a pardon, try me on a parole...
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I'd wake up in the mornin' and I'd set you free

Pat Neff was convinced by the song and by Huddie's assurances that he'd seen the error of his ways. Huddie left Huntsville a free man, but in 1930 he was again convicted of attempted homicide.

It was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in July 1933 that Huddie met folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan who were touring the south for the Library of Congress, collecting unwritten ballads and folk songs using the newly available recording technology. The Lomaxes had discovered that Southern prisons were among the best places to collect work songs, ballads and spirituals and Leadbelly, as he now called himself, was a particular find.

Over the next few days the Lomaxes recorded hundreds of songs. When they returned in the summer of 1934 for more recordings Leadbelly told them of his pardon in Texas. As Alan Lomax tells it, "We agreed to make a record of his petition on the other side of one of his favorite ballads, 'Goodnight Irene'. I took the record to Governor Allen on July 1. On August 1 Leadbelly got his pardon. On September 1 I was sitting in a hotel in Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Leadbelly with his guitar, his knife, and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, 'Boss, you got me out of jail and now I've come to be your man'"

He married his second wife Martha in 1935 and dyed his white hair black to hide their 20 years age difference in his wedding photos.

concert posterIn 1935 Lomax took Leadbelly North as his chauffeur and he began performing to an appreciative new audience in the leftist folk community, befriending the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In his later years, like Guthrie, he performed for political rallies and labor unions.

His keening, high-pitched vocals and powerful, percussive guitar playing commanded attention, and he became known as "the King of the Twelve-String Guitar".

Leadbelly remained Leadbelly. After hearing Cab Calloway sing in Harlem he announced that he could "beat that man singin' every time". His inclination toward violent resolution of conflicts, though mellowed, lead to him threatening Lomax with a knife which effectively ended their friendship.

By 1940 Leadbelly had recorded for a variety of labels, including Folkways and he performed tirelessly. Over the next 9 years his fame and success continued to increase until he fell ill while on a European Tour. Tests revealed that he suffered from lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and he died on December 6, 1949.

tomb stoneMore than any other black folk-blues artist of his time Leadbelly helped expose his race's vast musical riches to white America, and, in the process, helped preserve a folk legacy that has become a significant part of the nation's musical treasury. He was not a blues singer in the traditional sense; he also sang spirituals, pop, field and prison hollers, cowboy and childrens songs, dance tunes and folk ballads, and of course his own topical compositions. It has been said his repertoire was at least 500 songs.

That many of his songs carried a blues spirit can be traced back to his days with Blind Lemon Jefferson, but his greatest contribution to American music was in the folk field. Leadbelly classics such as "Goodnight Irene," "The Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line", "Cotton Fields," and "Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie" all contain black folk elements that many prewar bluesmen shunned, at least in the recording studio.

He never saw any commercial success during his lifetime. Not until after his death did a broader public come to know his songs and the amazing story of his life.

He has inflenced artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry, Bob Dylan, Joe Cainen and many others. Leadbelly's 65 years sometimes reads like a work of fiction.

Goodnight Irene.

King of the 12-string Guitar No other song is so deservedly associated with Lead Belly's commercial success as a song writer. John Lomax, in 1935, said that someday everyone in America would be singing this song. He did not make claims like that all the time. He said that he saw hardened convicts weep while listening to Irene, Goodnight. As to its origins, John Reynolds, a long time scholar of Leadbelly and an advisor to the Lead Belly Society, has found its origins in a mixed race songwriting team from Cincinnati, Ohio. Huddie said that he learned it from his Uncle Tyrell Ledbetter. A song with this title and in 3/4 time may have been performed for a few years in the late 1800's.

In 1950, the Weavers, a folk group led by Pete Seeger, recorded "Goodnight Irene." It sold 2 million copies and became the best selling song of 1950. Ironically, it hit number one only six weeks after Huddie Ledbetter died. "It's one more case of black music being made famous by white people," said Pete Seeger in 1988.

Since then a number of artists and rock groups have recorded Leadbelly songs. In 1988, Columbia Records released Folkways: A Vision Shared,which contained renditions of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs by such artists as Taj Mahal, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bob Dylan, and John Mellencamp. The net profits went to purchase the Folkways record catalog for the Smithsonian Institution. Leadbelly was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as one of the music form's chief pioneers.

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