Lead Belly: the Singing Convict
Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter ( 1885-1949) was a singer and a guitarist who, in 1915, was convicted of carrying a pistol illegally and sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. He escaped from the penitentiary by outrunning the prison dogs. Some years later he was imprisoned again at the Imperial Farm in Sugar Land, Texas, after killing one of his relatives in a fight over a woman. . After another prison escape, which failed, he tried to drown himself in a lake but was seized. Back in prison, he used his musical talents to gain favour with the prison guards. While there he may have first heard the traditional prison song “Midnight Special”.
In 1925, he was pardoned and released, and he said that he had convinced the governor with a song: ” Please, Pardon Me”.
Five years later he was sentenced to Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm after a trial for attempted homicide because he had stabbed a white Salvation Army officer man in a fight started because the officer had asked Lead Belly to stop dancing during a Salvation Army concert. While he was there, he met musicologist John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax who recorded hours of his performances. He was then released after having served nearly all of his minimum sentence, following a petition the Lomaxes had taken to the Louisiana Governor, together with his songs “Please, Pardon Me” (now addressed to the governor of Louisiana) and “Goodnight Irene”.
Therefore the idea that he sang his way out of the prison system may sound true.
He got his nickname “Lead Belly”, which is also the spelling on his tombstone, while in prison. Some claim his fellow inmates gave him that nickname as a play on his family name and his physical toughness. According to others, he earned it after being wounded in the stomach with buckshot. Another theory is that it refers to his ability to drink moonshine, the homemade liquor made by Southern farmers without showing any ill effect. It might also derive from his tendency to lay about in the shade as if “with a stomach weighted down by lead” when the chain gang was supposed to be working. The chain gang was the group of prisoners chained together to perform hard work as a form of punishment.
When Lead Belly was released from prison, in 1934, the United States were deep in the Great Depression, and jobs were very scarce. Therefore he asked John Lomax to take him on as a driver and he accompanied Lomax north, where they made a series of appearances at academic and scholarly gatherings, where he made a sensation with his physical scars and prison background.
He became known as “the singing convict”, and began recording for the American Record Corporation.
When John Lomax decided he could no longer work with Lead Belly, he decided to give him and his wife Martha money to go back to Louisiana by bus. The money was delivered to Martha, in instalments, because Lead Belly would spend it all on drinking if entrusted with a large sum. But the singer successfully sued Lomax for both the full amount and release from his management contract. When he returned to New York , Life magazine published a three-page article titled “Lead Belly: Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel” in its issue of April 19, 1937. The article attributed both of his pardons from prison to his singing of his petitions to the governors, who were so moved that they pardoned him.
Lead Belly attained success playing at folk music concerts and benefits, as well as with a repertoire of children’s game songs
In 1939, he was arrested once more for stabbing a man in a fight in Manhattan. Alan Lomax, then 24, helped raise money to pay for his legal bills, dropping out of graduate school to do so. After his release (in 1940–41), Lead Belly appeared as a regular on a radio show and in nightclubs, and recorded songs. He was the first American country blues musician to achieve success in Europe.
In 1949, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease (a motor neuron incurable disease leading to paralysis and death) and died later that year in New York