Lead Belly An Inspiration To Musicians

By Peggy Mercereau

Today, December 6th marks the 60th anniversary of Hudie Ledbetter’s death. Better known as Lead Belly he was an American folk musician and “king of the 12 string guitar.” Lead Belly had a violent temper and was sent to prison more than once. In 1915 he was convicted for carrying a pistol, but managed to escape from the chain gang. In 1918 he was imprisoned again for taking someone’s life. But in 1925 after serving 7 years (of a 7 – 35 year term) he was pardoned. He wrote a song to the Texas Governor at that time, Pat Morris Neff appealing for his freedom and the Governor granted his freedom to him. According to the book The Life and Legend of Lead Belly by Charles A. Wolf and Kip Lornell, Governor Neff often brought guests to the prison on Sunday picnics to hear Lead Belly perform. Lead Belly’s vast songbook, much of which he adapted from previous sources, has provided material for numerous folk, country, pop and rock acts since his time. Janis Joplin credits Lead Belly for her decision to become a singer. The song “Cotton Fields” written by Lead Belly has been recorded by Harry Belafonte in 1958, The Highway Men in 1961, Johnny Cash in 1962, Buck Owens in 1963, The Beach Boys in 1969, Wings & Paul McCartney in 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969, and Buckwheat Zydeco in 1994. The song “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene” are both old folksongs that were first recorded by Lead Belly. Both songs have been recorded by a number of artists including The Weavers and Frank Sinatra. Other artists to cover Lead Belly are Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart, The Doors, Meatloaf, and Nirvana, to name just a few. Lead Belly died on December 6, 1949 from Lou Gehrig’s disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

Listen to Lead Belly’s “Cotton Fields” and “Midnight Special” as well as some other artists covers.

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