"It was Lead Belly first. I knew what it was all about from the very front. I was right into blues."
"No Lead Belly, no Beatles."
Huddie Ledbetter was born on January 20, 1888 near Mooringsport, Louisiana. He had a musical gift that allowed him to master several instruments with no formal training. By the time he was a teenager he was playing for dances and parties and in the barrelhouses of Fannin Street in Shreveport, where prostitution was legal and the whiskey and the music flowed all night. Even though he was only 5' 9", Huddie was built like a rock. He called himself the King of the 12 String Guitar. When he played and sang, the women flocked around. This didn't always sit well with the men. Huddie was frequently obliged to defend himself. This defending often landed him in prison.
In 1934 Huddie, now known as Lead Belly, was in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola when John Lomax arrived collecting folk songs for the Library of Congress. Armed with some of the first portable recording equipment, Lomax was making recordings of inmates, and Lead Belly became his prize discovery. Lomax took a song Lead Belly recorded asking for a pardon to the governor. Two months later Lead Belly was free. In gratitude, Lead Belly offered to help Lomax with his song collecting. Lomax accepted and this odd couple toured the South visiting prisons and recording inmates. By the end of December they had made their way to New York City where Lomax introduced Lead Belly to the world. The headline in the New York Herald Tribune read, "Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides." Lead Belly went on to perform from Harvard to Hollywood, making hundreds of recordings for the Library of Congress and influencing generations of musicians around the world, an influence that continues to this day. Among the most well-known of the songs Lead Belly popularized are "The Midnight Special", "Rock Island Line" and "Good Night Irene".
Film House is currently in production on a feature documentary chronicling the amazing story of the man Woody Guthrie called "America's greatest folk singer." We've already filmed interviews with Pete Seeger, B.B. King, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Harry Belafonte, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Oscar Brand and many more, including Odetta's last interview. Sign up for our email list and we'll keep you posted on the film's progress, including when "Lead Belly: Life, Legend, Legacy" will be released in your area. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.
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