Together with Woody Guthrie, Hudie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, is considered a founding father of the American folk music movement. The “king of the 12-string guitar” was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in the year of 1888. By age 12 he was playing “professionally” in the Shreveport red light district. By age 20 he had already served several terms in prison. Legend has it that the folklorists John and Alan Lomax recorded Leadbelly in prison, and attached a phonograph record of Leadbelly’s Irene Goodnight to his parole petition – which indeed was granted in 1934 by Louisiana governor Oscar K. Allen. Such is the legend for what it’s worth.

Certainly, Leadbelly’s powerful voice and 12 string guitar style were charismatic. Rooted in the blues, Leadbelly’s repertoire included ragtime, traditional folk songs, and the pop music of his time. He penned, or is credited with writing such folk favorites as  Midnight Special, Pick a Bale of Cotton, Rock Island Line, Irene Goodnight, and a host of other spirituals and blues songs. Thanks to the Lomaxes, many Leadbelly recordings are immortalized in the Library of Congress. Click below to hear two Leadbelly songs, which were recorded only last week somewhere outside the Louisiana prison walls (fortunately), and which are not to be found in the Library of Congress (also fortunately).

Pick a Bale of Cotton

Midnight Special