Today is the birthday of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly (1888-1949). A folk and blues musician of incalculable influence, he was already playing professionally by 1903, although he didn’t really come to widespread public notice until the 1930s when folklorists John and Alan Lomax discovered him at Angola Prison Farm and began recording him.
Leadbelly was in and out of prison a good deal of his adult life. A penchant for drink and a violent temper had caused him to attack many a man over the years, taking the lives of some of them. The public has cut him an amazing amount of slack about this, and damn it is problematic. The amount of pleasure his music has given people cannot be calculated, not just through his own playing and recording (he released many of his own records and played often on the radio during his lifetime), but also via his influence on other artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Creedance Clearwater Revival, the list is way too long. Because of the nature of the music he performed, we can’t help but take him for a folk figure himself, like one of the characters he sings about, oh…John Henry…Frankie & Johnny etc etc etc. Thus the murder he committed doesn’t seem real, seems like a myth, a story. But it’s not. Ledbetter had blood on his hands, but we think of him like Santa Claus.
Now here’s a strange artifact. Here’s the composer of “Goodnight, Irene” (his best known original song, although he popularized many traditional ones like “Midnight Special” and “House of the Rising Sun”) re-enacting his discovery by the Lomaxes on the prison farm, stripes and all, for a 1935 news reel. Ya know? Maybe the media has just always been this weird: