Heart of Louisiana: Lead Belly

Updated: Jul. 14, 2020 at 9:45 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - He was a Louisiana musical great who recorded songs that influenced blues, folk, country and rock and roll. He went by the name Lead Belly.

His journey to fame was filled with obstacles as he occasionally found himself on the wrong side of the law.

“Right here I’m going to do a song I recorded some years back by Lead Belly called ‘Rock Island Line’,” Chris Thomas King.

Louisiana blues musicians Chris Thomas King plays one of many songs popularized by Lead Belly, a legendary singer from the early 20th century, who’s music influenced performers from Bob Dylan to the Carter Family to Led Zepplin.

Lead Belly, who’s real name is Huddie Ledbetter, was born in the Northwest Louisiana town of Mooringsport along Caddo Lake.

You can find his grave in a cemetery behind the nearby Shiloh Baptist Church. The grave features Lead Belly’s signature 12-string guitar.

King has written as soon-to-be-published history of the blues and he has portrayed Lead Belly on stage in a community play.

As he played the character, obviously you want to know as much about him as you can. You want to try to act think he would have acted. He shares what Lead Belly was like in his opinion.

“He was a person who came from an era where, you know, the black man is not supposed to look you in the eye, supposed to step off the sidewalk and these kinds of things like, you know, he’s supposed to be a little more submissive. But Lead Belly didn’t take no stuff. And his temper and his pride, you know, and his self assertiveness got him in trouble a lot,” says King.

In fact, Lead Belly was imprisoned in Texas for murder. But was able to sing his way to freedom.

“He wrote a song and sang a song to the governor of Texas, Governor Neff at the time asking the governor to pardon him and sure enough, the governor on his way out of the office did give Lead Belly a pardon,” says King.

Some years later, another scuffle lands Lead Belly in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary. He is seen standing near a fence. It is where folklorist John Lomax met Lead Belly and recorded his music.

There is a similar story that Lead Belly sang his way to a Louisiana pardon, but that’s more myth than fact. He was released after serving his minimum sentence.

Lomax recorded more of Lead Belly’s music and took him on tour in New York.

“John Lomax, who was more like a promoter and carnival barker, you know, ‘Step right up and see the wild savage from Louisiana, straight from Angola Prison, a murderer.’ You know, this and that, like he’s King Kong,” says King. “So, Lead Belly had to really work to show people that he’s an artist. I’m here to sing music, not to be a spectacle.”

While on the European tour, Lead Belly was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and he died six months later in 1949.

“Irene, you know his song that he wrote, after his death became a number one on the Billboard chart.”

And you get a sense of Huddie Ledbetter’s importance as you stand by his grave. A musical legend, the king of the 12 string guitar and a man who changed the world of music.

Grammy Award winning artist Chris Thomas King has written and is publishing a new book on the history of the blues. He has excerpts on his website.

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