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  • Typically played 12-string guitar, but also played piano, violin, mandolin,

harmonica, concertina, and accordion

Trouble with the Law

  • Lead Belly’s boastful spirit and penchant for the occasional skirmish lead to his troubles with the law

  • Imprisoned in January of 1918 for killing one of his relatives in a fight

  • In 1930, Lead Belly was back in prison, this time in Louisiana for attempted homicide

  • Both times was pardoned by the governor of the state in which he was imprisoned

  • Ledbetter first acquired his famous nickname while he was in prison; his fellow inmates dubbed him “Lead Belly” as a play on his last name and a testament to his physical toughness

  • Back in prison for assault in 1939

Lead Belly & Governor Pat Neff

  • 2 years into a 35 year sentence for killing a relative, Lead Belly wrote a song appealing to Governor Neff for his freedom

  • Supposedly Lead Belly swayed Neff by appealing to his strong religious values

  • That, in combination with good behavior and entertaining the guards and fellow prisoners was Lead Belly’s ticket out of jail

The Lomaxes

  • While in prison in 1933, he was “discovered” by musicologists John and Alan Lomax who were enamored with his talent, passion and singularity as a performer

  • The Lomaxes recorded hundreds of Lead Belly’s songs for the Library of Congress

  • The Lomaxes petitioned for his second release from prison

  • In 1934, Lead Belly migrated with Alan Lomax to New York where he achieved fame, but not fortune

Later Years and Death

  • After being released from prison in 1940, he returned to the surging New York

folk scene

  • Befriended Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger

  • In 1949, he began his first European tour, but fell ill before its completion

  • Was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease

  • Died later that year in New York

Some of the Hits C.C. Rider Governor Pat Neff Midnight Special Goodnight, Irene In New Orleans Pick a Bale o’ Cotton

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