Leadbellybyname of Huddie William Ledbetter
(born , c. Jan. 21, 1885?, Mooringsport, La., U.S.died Dec. 6, 1949, New York, N.Y.) American folk-blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose ability to perform a vast repertoire of songs, in conjunction with his notoriously violent life, made him a legend.
Musical from childhood, Leadbelly played accordion, 6- and 12-string guitar, bass, and harmonica. He led a wandering life, learning songs by absorbing oral tradition. For a time he worked as an itinerant musician with Blind Lemon Jefferson. In 1918 he was imprisoned for murder; after serving six years, he was pardoned by the governor of Texas, who had visited the prison and heard him sing.
Resuming a life of drifting, Leadbelly was imprisoned for attempted murder in 1930 in the Angola, La., prison farm. There he was discovered by the folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who were collecting songs for the Library of Congress. A campaign spearheaded by the Lomaxes secured his release in 1934, and he embarked on a concert tour of eastern colleges. Subsequently, he published 48 songs and commentary (1936) about Depression-era conditions of blacks, recorded extensively, and from 1937, when he settled in New York City, performed for political causes. He worked with Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and others as the Headline Singers, performed on radio, and appeared in a short film in 1945. In 1949, shortly before his death, he gave a concert in Paris.
Leadbelly died penniless, but within six months his song Goodnight, Irene had become a million-record hit for the singing group The Weavers; along with other pieces from his repertoire, among them The Midnight Special and Rock Island Line, it became a standard.
Copyright © 1994-2005 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.