Huddie Ledbetter was born near Mooringsport, Louisiana on January 21, 1885. He died December 6, 1949, seven days prior to the day I was born. Cause of death was a muscular-deteriorating disease. He never saw even a glimmer of commercial success during his lifetime, but after his death several of his songs became popular hits. "The Midnight Special," Goodnight Irene, "Cotton Fields," and "Rock Island Line" are a few.

He may well be the most widely known of all the blues/folk artists. I'll never forget the first time I heard him. It was at a girl's house when I was in my late teens. The popular folk group at the time was Peter, Paul and Mary. We were listening to their Album 1700> from 1967. I was all caught up in "Whatshername" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," then I noticed that this girl's parents had a Leadbelly album.

He called himself the king of all of the 12-string guitar players in the world. That may have been overstatement. But he played 6 and 12-string guitar as well as harp, accordion, piano, and mandolin. He sang blues, field hollers, children's songs along with many of his own topical songs. It has been said his repertoire was at least 500 songs.

For a time he was teamed up with the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson and the two of them became well known as street performers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Leadbelly's work influenced many artists: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Brownie McGee & Sonny Terry, and me.

In July 1933, while Huddie was serving time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary on attempted homicide charges (he'd previously served two sentences in Texas for assault and murder), he was recorded by folklorist John Avery Lomax and his son Alan. The Library of Congress was collecting folk songs and the Lomaxes had discovered Southern prisons to be a ripe place for collection. When the Lomaxes returned in 1934, Leadbelly gave them a song that had gained him a pardon in Texas. They recorded it, brought it to the governor, and within a month, Huddie was a free man. (Good story, but state records suggests he was released under a "double good time" early release program and not the song).

He worked for the Lomaxes as a chauffeur and recording assistant, and by 1936 was performing in colleges and theaters. The Lomaxes cashed in on his convict status by having him wear prison uniform on stage. Disagreements over management and Huddie's carousing led to a split with John Lomax. He moved to New York to play in clubs and at political rallies (the musical climate of jazz and swing made his music a favorite only with the trade union movement, college students, and the liberal establishment).

The two principal sources of Leadbelly's music these days are Rounder Records (re-issuing the complete Library of Congress recordings) and Smithsonian/Folkways, although his recordings for Capitol Records and the American Record Company are still available (the latter from Sony).

Unfortunately, of all of the artists who covered his work, very few gave him credit, and some actually claim to have wrote the songs themselves. The only exception I know of is Nirvana, who properly credit him with Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, but I'm willing to accept that there are probably others who did that I don't know about. A partial list of artists who posthumously ripped him off follows:

Led Zeppelin: Gallows Pole, originally titled Mama Did You Bring Me Any Silver
AC/DC: Have A Drink On Me, originally titled Have A Whiff On Me, and about cocaine, not alcohol. quote: I walk up Elm and I come down Main; Try to bum me a nickel(!) just to buy cocaine

Johnny Cash: Rock Island Line, Pick A Bale of Cotton and I Got Stripes, originally titled Ain't Gonna Ring Dem Yellow Woman's Do Bells.
Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers, Frank Sinatra and many others: Good Night Irene
Greatful Dead or Jerry Garcia Band: Hesitation Blues, C.C. Rider

This list is by no means complete. I knew 5 of these off the top of my head, the others I scoured the web for. If anyone else can add to it, I hope that they will. What I did is searched for songs from Leadbelly's discography (you can find it at Then I searched for web sites with the song title and without the names Leadbelly, Ledbelly, Ledbetter, or Huddie. And about .001% of the pages had what I was looking for.

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