Born to a family of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South a little over twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lead Belly’s start was humble. As a boy, he helped his parents–Wesley and Sally Ledbetter–work the land as a sharecropper on a Louisiana plantation, while his uncle Terrell introduced him to music as early as two years old. He learned a number of different instruments, including the accordion, mandolin, piano, and the 12-string guitar with which he later used to carve out his legacy. At the tender age of 12, he then left home and began his storied music career–playing “sukey jumps” and “juke joints” on weekends to support himself as he wandered the Deep South.
1889: a legend is born
Lead Belly is born as Huddie Ledbetter on a plantation in Mooringsport, Louisiana to sharecropper Wesley Ledbetter and his wife, part-Cherokee Sally Ledbetter.
At the age of 5, he moves to Texas with his family.
He quits school by age 12, then leaves his father’s farm and travels southwest, working as a laborer and playing his guitar to financially support himself.
At the age of 14, he becomes a popular musician on the weekends at local “sukey jumps” and “juke joints”–African American dance bars.
He settles in Dallas with his first wife when he is sixteen, who goes on to have two children.
STRUGGLES: the chain gang
Lead Belly led a whirlwind life marked often by violent deeds that landed him in prison on more than one occasion. He never stayed for all that long, however; as the stories go, the music he would perform while in prison moved individuals like Governor Pat Neff to grant an official pardon after serving only the minimum sentence. It was in prison that he was first given the moniker under which he later became famous: Lead Belly, on account of his last name, Ledbetter. His time in prison later became one of his selling points as a musician, as multiple articles accounted with intrigue that the same hands that once killed a man could create music that moved the masses.
He is arrested for punching another man and pulling a gun in a bathroom brawl, and is sentenced to hard labor in Harrison County, Texas. He escapes, assuming the name Walter Boyd and finding work in nearby Bowie County.
For a short time, he serves as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s lead boy: a guide and companion in the Dallas streets.
1918: becoming lead belly
He gets into a violent confrontation with relative Will Stafford in Dallas, TX. that ends in Stafford’s death. This results in a 30-year prison sentence in Huntsville, TX state prison. It is during this prison sentence that he earns the nickname under which he became famous: “Lead Belly”
He writes the song “Governor Pat Neff,” in which he asks for a pardon from the song’s namesake. Governor Neff had earlier promised he would never pardon a prisoner during his election, but according to the stories, his mind was ultimately changed by Lead Belly’s song. Governor Neff grants him an official pardon within the year.
He gets into a another fight in a party and was sentenced again, to the Angola Farm prison plantation in Louisiana.
John and Alan Lomax, who were were recording prison songs for the Library of Congress, discover Lead Belly while he is imprisoned in Louisiana. They petition Governor O.K. Allen to pardon him, and Allen ultimately complies.
CAREER: the human jukebox
Lead Belly went on to lead a storied music career marked by soaring popularity that only increased after his untimely death. His signature folk-blues style songs resonate strongly with a diverse audience, even bridging the seemingly insurmountable gap between the races during the era. He moved to New York during this height of his career, where he recorded for a number of different music labels. With over 500 recorded songs under his belt, Lead Belly built himself a rock-solid foundation upon which a lasting legacy could thrive.
The Lomaxes take Lead Belly to New York as their chauffeur. He makes his first performance in NYC, hosted by NYU professor Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Margaret Conklin. He ends up settling in New York, where he makes his first commercial recordings for Arc Label. Shortly after, he married his second wife, Martha Promise.
He plays at the Apollo Theater during the Harlem Renaissance and records for TIME.
His third and final arrest is made, this time for stabbing a man during a knife-fight in Manhattan. However, he is released very shortly after his prison sentencing.
He records for labels, like Folkways and Columbia Records, did radio work, and performed with Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Woody Guthrie. With music that was especially resonant with left-wing activists, he performs for political rallies and labor unions.
He records Last Sessions, The Life and Music of the King of the twelve-String Guitar.
He visits Paris, where he had intended to build a white European following. However, it didn’t quite pan out, as they preferred jazz over folk. During European Tour, he falls ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Despite the pain caused by the muscle deterioration, he continues his music career, playing on until his untimely death.
1949: gone, never forgotten
Lead Belly dies at the age of 61 shortly after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease on December 6th at Belleuve Hospital Center in New York City, New York. He is buried in his birth home of Mooringsport, Louisiana.