He was the first American Blues artist to achieve success in Europe
The influential Blues artist Lead Belly was born on this day
Huddie William Ledbetter was born on January 20, 1888, in Mooringsport, Louisiana. He acquired the nickname Lead Belly during the many times he spent in prison and today he’s known as Leadbelly. By 1903, Huddie was already a “musicianer”,a singer and guitarist of some note. He performed for nearby Shreveport audiences in St. Paul’s Bottoms, a notorious red-light district there. He began to develop his own style of music after exposure to various musical influences on Shreveport’s Fannin Street, a row of saloons, brothels, and dance halls in the Bottoms, now referred to as Ledbetter Heights. Leadbelly usually played a twelve-string guitar, but he also played the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and “Windjammer” (diatonic accordion). In some of his recordings, he sang while clapping his hands or stomping his foot and developed a unique style and technique that distinguished him from other artists at the time. Though not really successful during his early years as a musician, Leadbelly became one of the most influential Blues artists and the first American Blues artist to achieve success in Europe. He was sentenced and spent some years in prison by reasons including carrying a pistol, attempting murder of a “white man” and also homicide when he killed one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. It was during the 1930’s that Leadbelly started to achieve notoriety as a musician, he wrote and did several redemption’s of Blues and Folk songs that are now classics that find it’s the first reference on his versions, such as “House Of The Rising Sun”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, “Black Betty”, “Midnight Special” or “Cotton Fields”. Leadbelly started his first European tour in France in 1949, but he passed away in New York a few months later on December 6th of the same year at age 61 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. His final concert took place at the University of Texas at Austin in a tribute to his former mentor, John Lomax, who had died the previous year. During his lifetime Leadbelly befriended other influential Folk and Blues artists such as Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger.During the 1960’s several Rock bands started to cover Leadbelly’s songs, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Animals and Grateful Dead. Also, some country artists such as Johnny Cash covered his work, and surprisingly crooners like Frank Sinatra as well. During the 1970’s the trend continued with a new generation of Rockers like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart or Ram Jam keeping his legacy alive. But the most surprising resurgence of his music was during the 1990’s when Alternative and Grunge Rock bands and artists started to name Leadbelly as one of their influence, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan, Meat Puppets, and Nirvana. The pinnacle of it was when Nirvana covered “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” at their 1993 MTV Unplugged concert, which became one of the most famous versions of the song. Kurt Cobain Cobain listed “Lead Belly’s Last Session Vol. 1” as one of the 50 albums most influential in the formation of Nirvana’s sound and other Leadbelly’s songs covered by Nirvana were released on their box-set “With The Lights Out” such as “Grey Goose” and “They Hung Him On A Cross”. Leadbelly’s legacy continues to inspire and influence artists from every genre to this day. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988.
Watch this rare clip from 1945 containing the only Lead Belly’s appearance on film, edited by Pete Seeger
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