His parents christened him Huddie William Ledbetter in 1888, but his prison pals later dubbed him Lead Belly and the nickname stuck. A strong, stocky black man from Louisiana, he sang in juke joints and dance halls around Shreveport and East Texas. His voice was powerful and he played the 12-string guitar like a virtuoso, but he also possessed a hot temper that frequently landed him in jail.

In Texas in 1918, he killed a man in a fight over a woman and was sentenced to 30 years at hard labor. Six years later, when Governor Pat Neff visited the Shaw prison farm, Lead Belly sang for him, ending his performance with a song asking Neff to pardon him. In 1925 Neff did just that. Back in Louisiana in 1930, Lead Belly got drunk and attacked a man with a knife. Convicted of assault, he was sentenced to six to 10 years at the infamous Angola prison farm. He was still there in July 1933, when John Lomax drove up in a dusty Ford with a huge recording machine crammed into the trunk.

Lomax, 65, was a Texan with a master’s degree from Harvard, a former college professor with a passion for American folk songs. In 1910 he published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. In 1933—armed with a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies and a crude 315-pound, aluminum-disc recording machine borrowed from the Library of Congress—Lomax drove across the South with his son Alan, recording obscure folks singing obscure folk songs.

On the fourth day, a guard introduced the Lomaxes to Lead Belly.

John Lomax loved the old songs and feared that the advent of radio and the popularity of celebrity singers would cause Americans to abandon their traditional music. Obsessed, he resolved to record the old songs before they were forgotten. He figured one place to find folk songs was in prisons, where inmates had “not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio” and still sang “distinctive old-time Negro melodies.”

The guards at Angola eyed Lomax and his son skeptically and searched their car carefully but finally let them enter. For several days, the two men recorded prisoners, including a group of female inmates—“a bunch of comely colored girls,” Lomax called them—who sang a ballad recounting the crucifixion of Christ in gruesome detail.

On the fourth day, a guard introduced the Lomaxes to Lead Belly. Dressed in the classic prison uniform of thick horizontal stripes, Lead Belly, 45, started picking his 12-string and singing, and the visitors were amazed. “We found a Negro convict so skillful with his guitar and his strong, baritone voice that he has been made a ‘trusty’ [given special privileges],” John Lomax wrote. Ledbetter, he added “was unique in knowing a very large number of songs, all of which he sang effectively while he twanged his twelve-string guitar.”

This photo, taken by Alan Lomax at the prison in Angola, La., in 1934, shows Lead Belly in the foreground (Library of Congress).
This photo, taken by Alan Lomax at the prison in Angola, La., in 1934, shows Lead Belly in the foreground (Library of Congress).

The Lomaxes recorded Lead Belly singing seven songs, including an outlaw ballad called “Ella Speed”; a song about the prison, “Angola Blues”; and a little ditty about cocaine, “Take a Whiff on Me.” He also sang a beautiful, gentle waltz called “Goodnight, Irene.” Until that day, it had never been recorded. Since then, it’s become an American classic, covered by singers ranging from Frank Sinatra to Ernest Tubb to Little Richard to Raffi.

The Lomaxes moved on—recording Cajun singers in Louisiana and prisoners in Mississippi and Tennessee—before returning to the Library of Congress with their cache of audio treasures.

A year later, in July 1934, they returned to Angola with a better recording machine, eager to capture more of Lead Belly’s music. The prisoner was delighted to perform, recording many old songs, plus a new one he’d written called “Governor O.K. Allen.” Allen was Louisiana’s governor and the song was Lead Belly’s plea for a pardon:

I left my wife wringing her hands and cryin’
“Governor O.K. Allen, save that man of mine.”

Lomax promised Lead Belly that he’d take a copy of the song to Allen’s office and he did. A month later, Lead Belly was released. For years, both Lomax and Lead Belly told reporters that the song persuaded the governor to pardon the singer, but that was just hype. Actually, Lead Belly wasn’t pardoned at all. He’d simply earned enough “good-time” credits under Louisiana law to be released.

Lead Belly left Angola in the depths of the Great Depression but he quickly found a job—as Lomax’s chauffeur. He called Lomax “Boss Man” and drove him to prisons and juke joints, where he helped the old white man convince black folks to sing into his strange machine.

In December 1934, Lead Belly drove Lomax to Philadelphia, where the Modern Language Association, an organization of literature professors, was convening. Lomax delivered a lecture—“Negro Folksongs and Ballads”—while Lead Belly served as a human audiovisual aid. He wowed the crowd with his songs and then passed the hat—not the usual procedure at MLA lectures—collecting $47.46.

Two days later, Lomax and Lead Belly reprised their act at an academic tea at Bryn Mawr College. Early in 1935, they performed in New York City, then took their show on the road to colleges in Albany, Rochester, Buffalo and finally to Harvard, Lomax’s alma mater. Lead Belly impressed an audience of 600 there, earning long, loud applause. “Staid New England broke down its reserve,” Lomax wrote triumphantly to his wife. “The entire Harvard visit exceeded my wildest dreams.”

By then, newspaper reporters had gotten wind of the strange story of the black murderer who sang for tweedy college professors. The headline in the New York Herald Tribune proclaimed: SWEET SINGER OF THE SWAMPLANDS HERE TO DO A FEW TUNES BETWEEN HOMICIDES. Time magazine called Lead Belly the MURDEROUS MINSTREL , while the Brooklyn Eagle opted for VIRTUOSO OF KNIFE AND GUITAR. Life magazine topped its Lead Belly article with the cringe-inducing BAD NIGGER MAKES GOOD MINSTREL. Suddenly famous, Lead Belly sang on the radio, performed for the Rockefeller Foundation, appeared in a “March of Time” newsreel and cut an album.

But his relationship with the Boss Man deteriorated rapidly. Lomax got angry when his chauffeur drove off to spend the night drinking and singing in ghetto bars, returning in the morning with a hangover and a raspy voice. Lead Belly chafed at Lomax’s paternalism and resented that Boss Man kept two-thirds of the money they earned. In the spring of 1935, the two parted company forever, communicating mainly through their lawyers as they squabbled over the modest sums Lead Belly’s music brought in.

After the split, Lomax continued traveling across America, recording folk songs. In 1936 he became folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project, dispatching writers to interview ex-slaves about their experiences. He died in 1948 at the age of 80.

Lead Belly moved to New York and kept performing, introducing audiences to such now familiar folk songs as “The Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight, Irene.” He died in 1949 at age 61. A year later, a folk group called the Weavers recorded “Goodnight, Irene,” and it zoomed to No. 1 on the pop charts, spawning the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, which changed the sound of American music forever.