Leadbelly

Induction Year: 1980

Birth Name: Huddie William Ledbetter

Birth Date: 01-23-1888

Place of Birth: Mooringsport, Louisiana

Death Date: 12-06-1949

Place of Death: New York City, New York

Born on a plantation to a sharecropping family, Huddie (pronounced Hugh-dee) Ledbetter absorbed everything from spirituals to prison hollers while working in the fields as a boy. From that experience, he shaped and popularized a treasury of traditional folk songs that have become American standards.

At 16, Ledbetter moved by himself to Shreveport, and for two years made his living by singing on the streets and in saloons. After getting married, he tried to settle down to life as a farmer. But his wanderlust soon lured him back to music, this time in tandem with another now-famous street singer, Blind Lemon Jefferson. From 1912 to 1916, the two played shows together around Texas and Louisiana. It was during this time that Ledbetter switched to the 12-string guitar, which became his trademark instrument.

To match his fiery musical prowess, he had an equally volatile temperament, which often put him on the wrong side of the law. After his first arrest for carrying a pistol, he escaped from a chain gang and was soon living and performing under the assumed name of Walter Boyd. Then in 1917, he was convicted of murdering the husband of one of his cousins. During his seven years in prison, Ledbetter got the nickname Leadbelly, for being tough as lead. In 1924, he wrangled a pardon from his sentence by singing an original song of appeal for the governor of Texas.

But a few years later, a stabbing incident landed him back in prison. During a four-year jail term, Leadbelly was visited by Library of Congress song collector John Lomax and his son Alan, who recorded him in the first of many sessions. Much of what became the singer's famous repertoire consisted of age-old traditional folk songs he had modified into his own compositions — "Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line" and "Goodnight Irene" among them.

Lomax took Leadbelly under his wing and helped introduce him to the world through recordings (on several labels, including Folkways and Capitol) and extensive concert tours. By the 1940s, he was part of a New York community of folk musicians, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. As the decade passed, Leadbelly's health deteriorated. He died of Lou Gehrig's Disease in 1949.

Shortly after his death, his songs were topping the charts, in cover versions by everyone from Ernest Tubb to Frank Sinatra to the Weavers.
 

"Ain't Goin' Down to the Well No More"

(written with John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax)

Leadbelly1939 
The Golden Gate Quartet1955 
Pete Seeger1989 
Asleep at the Wheel2003 
Tom Waits2006 
 

"Alabama Bound"

Big Bill Broonzy1934 
Lasses & Honey1935 
Leadbelly1935 
Buck Johnson1944 
Jelly Roll Morton1956 
Odetta1956 
Pete Seeger1959 
Tom Rush1963 
Doc Watson1967 
Roger McGuinn2001 

"Black Betty"

Leadbelly1948 
Koerner, Ray & Glover1964 
Long John Baldry1971 
Ram Jam1977 #18 pop
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds1986 
Tom Jones2002 
Joe Brown2006 
Meat Loaf2008 
 

"Boll Weevil"

(written with John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax)

Leadbelly1934 
Pete Seeger1959 
The White Stripes2003 
Sid Selvidge2005 
Dan Zanes2007 
 

"Bourgeois Blues"

(written with Alan Lomax)

Leadbelly1938 
Pete Seeger1964 
Ry Cooder1976 
Taj Mahal1988 
Tav Falco's Panther Burns1989 
Arlo Guthrie1989 
Odetta2001 
 

"Bring a Little Water, Sylvie"

(written with Paul Campbell, Lonnie Donegan)

Leadbelly1935 
The Weavers1950 
Lonnie Donegan1956 
Harry Belafonte1959 
Rolf Harris1960 
Hylo Brown1962 
The Impressions1968 
The Nields2008 
 

"Cotton Fields"

Leadbelly1944 
Harry Belafonte1959 
Pete Fountain1959 
Johnny Cash1962 
The Highwaymen1962 #13 pop
The Springfields1962 
The Staple Singers1962 
The Wilburn Brothers1962 
Odetta1963 
Ferlin Husky1963 
Buck Owens1963 
Lou Rawls1963 
Ace Cannon1963 #67 pop
Boots Randolph1963 
Eddy Arnold1964 
Mac Wiseman1964 
Porter Wagoner1965 
Webb Pierce1966 
Flatt & Scruggs1967 
Charley Pride1969 
The Beach Boys1970 
The Osborne Brothers1970 
Elvis Presley1970 
Creedence Clearwater Revival1982 #50 country
Tennessee Express1983 #65 country
Buckwheat Zydeco2002 
Mary Hopkin & Sundance2002 
Chris Thomas King2003 
Elton John2004 
Howard Roberts2006 
 

"Easy Rider"

Leo Soileau1929 
Jimmie Davis1933 
Milton Brown1936 
Buddy Jones1939 
Leadbelly1940 
Odetta1956 
The Alexis Korner Skiffle Group1957 
Bobby Darin1966 
The Spencer Davis Group1972 
 

"Ella Speed"

(written with John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax)

Leadbelly1933 
Lonnie Donegan1957 
Gil Evans1957 
Ian & Sylvia1964 
Jim Kweskin1968 
Johnny Duncan1996 
 

"Good Morning Blues"

(written with Alan Lomax)

The Mississippi Sheiks1935 
Leadbelly1940 
Josh White1956 
Peter & Gordon1965 
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee1980 
Long John Baldry2001 

"Goodnight Irene"

(written with John A. Lomax)

Leadbelly1933 
The Weavers1950 #1 pop
Ernest Tubb & Red Foley1950 #1 country, #10 pop
Moon Mullican1950 #5 country
Gene Autry1950 
Frank Sinatra1950 #5 pop
Jo Stafford1950 #9 pop
The Orioles1950 
Dennis Day1950 #17 pop
The Alexander Brothers1950 #26 pop
Johnny Cash1957 
Billy Williams1959 #75 pop
Big Bill Broonzy1953 
Chet Atkins1959 
Mitch Miller & His Gang1959 
Rolf Harris1960 
Jerry Reed1962 #79 pop
The Highwaymen1964 
The Kingston Trio1969 
Mississippi John Hurt1972 
Bobby Bare1982 
Arlo Guthrie1989 
Bill Frisell2002 
George Winston2004 
Steve Forbert2004 
 

"Pick a Bale of Cotton"

Leadbelly1935 
The Golden Gate Quartet1940 
Woody Guthrie1945 
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee1962 
Lonnie Donegan1962 
Johnny Cash1962 
Mike & Peggy Seeger1977 
Raffi1979 
John Stewart1996 

"Rock Island Line"

Buell Kazee1927 
Leadbelly1937 
The Golden Gate Quartet1940 
Lonnie Donegan1956 #8 pop
Bobby Darin1956 
Stan Freberg1957 
The Weavers1957 
Harry Belafonte1957 
Jimmy Work1958 
Johnny Horton1960 
Grandpa Jones1963 
Ramblin' Jack Elliott1964 
Pete Seeger1964 
Johnny Cash1970 #35 country
Carl Perkins1985 
The Knitters1985 
Little Richard1988 
Arlo Guthrie1989 
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee1991 
Long John Baldry2001 
Odetta2001 
Dan Zanes2002 
Chris Thomas King2003 
 

"Take This Hammer"

Leadbelly1934 
Big Bill Broonzy1956 
Odetta1957 
Lonnie Donegan1958 
The Country Gentlemen1960 
Flatt & Scruggs1962 
Hylo Brown1962 
Red Sovine1969 
The Osborne Brothers1970 
Long John Baldry2001 
 

"Take a Whiff on Me"

(written with John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax, Peter Buchanan)

Charlie Poole1927 
Leadbelly1933 
Woody Guthrie1944 
Lonnie Donegan1961 
The Byrds1970 
James Talley1994 
The Kentucky Colonels1995 
The Flying Burrito Brothers2002 
The White Stripes2004 

"The Midnight Special"

Otto Gray1929 
Bill Cox & Cliff Hobbs1933 
Leadbelly1934 
Big Bill Broonzy1935 
Les Paul1946 
Delmore Brothers1947 
Merle Travis1950 
The Weavers1951 
Josh White1957 
Lonnie Donegan1957 
Paul Evans1960 #16 pop
Jimmie Rodgers1961 
Harry Belafonte1962 
The Springfields1962 
Odetta1963 
Pete Seeger1964 
The Kingston Trio1965 
Johnny Rivers1965 #20 pop
The Spencer Davis Group1965 
Mac Wiseman1966 
Van Morrison1967 
Creedence Clearwater Revival1969 
Little Richard1971 
Bobby Darin1973 
Alvin Lee1975 
Big Joe Turner1976 
Albert Lee1988 
Arlo Guthrie1989 
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee1991 
Buckwheat Zydeco1992 
Paul McCartney2001 
Long John Baldry2001 
Chris Thomas King2003 

"When I Was a Cowboy"

Leadbelly1934 
The Standells1966 
Ian & Sylvia1966 
Alan Price1970 
Peter Rowan1978 
Tim O'Brien1994 
Odetta2001 
Katy Moffatt2001 
Dan Hicks2005 
 

"Where Did You Sleep Last Night"

Leadbelly1944 
Nirvana1994 
Sam Marshall2008 
 

"Whoa Back Buck"

(written with John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax)

Canova Family1930 
Leadbelly1935 
Lulu Belle & Scotty1940 
Lonnie Donegan1957 
Dave Van Ronk1963 
Mickey Baker1971 
Long John Baldry1996 
 

"You Don't Know My Mind"

(written with John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax)

Leadbelly1935 
Bob Dunn's Vagabonds1939 
Odetta2001 

Leadbelly

Induction Year: 1980