Leadbelly (1888 – 1949)

“I only know two things `bout this ol` world,

that I`m a born Sinner and Jesus is the LORD.”

On this day in 1888 was born Huddie William Ledbetter on a plantation near Shreveport, Louisiana…

Notable both for his clear “high tenor” vocals and his unparalleled virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, “Leadbelly” remains one the most influential and beloved Blues performers of the pre-War era. His contribution towards the preservation of many historical American folk tunes (by the popularity of his performance of them) is also significant.

Although his most commonly played instrument was the twelve-string, Leadbelly boasted an impressive degree of aptitude on the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, concertina, and accordion. In fact, for some of his earlier recordings (such as in his versions of the ballad “John Hardy”) he performs on the accordion instead of the guitar in a masterful interpretation of the Zydeco style of his native Louisiana.

The topics of Leadbelly`s music covered a wide range of subjects – everything from sacred hymns about the Gospel to rousing cautionary Blues songs about fast women or the evils of liquor, as well as various topical commentaries on the issues and people of his day. A rarity in his time, he was a performer of both socially concerned and culturally traditional material – a singular aspect which would come to directly influence such musical luminaries as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Huddie William Ledbetter died in New York City in 1949, leaving behind a vast songbook (of what would later be recognized as American folk standards) and an influence on popular music that remains to this day.


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