Lead Belly 78 RPM Featuring "Grey Goose"
Discovered in prison, the legendary Texas "musicianer" sang the blues around the world
Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly," was a singer and 12-string guitarist who spent the first four decades of his life living in Texas and Louisiana.
Born about 1889, by age 15 he already described himself as a "musicianer" and was developing his own unique instrumental style and powerful vocals playing in clubs in the red-light district of Shreveport. Unfortunately, Ledbetter had a violent temper and was in and out of prison several times in the course of his life. In the 1920s, he served time in the Texas prison system for killing a relative in a fight over a woman. At that time, his talent came to the notice of Governor Pat Neff, who eventually pardoned him. But by 1930, Ledbetter was back in prison again, this time serving time in Louisiana for attempted murder for stabbing a man in a knife fight.
Lead Belly came to the notice of John Avery Lomax, a folklorist who was collecting songs from America's disappearing folk tradition for the Library of Congress. Lomax and his son Alan both worked with Lead Belly to record hundreds of folk songs, many of which might have been lost forever if not immortalized in the project. When he was released from prison in 1934, Lead Belly traveled to the East Coast, where he eventually found an audience performing his folk songs. He was the first American country blues musician to find an audience in Europe.
Lead Belly had several successful recording sessions aside from the Library of Congress work with the Lomaxes. This 78 RPM record was released by the Victor label in 1941 and features Lead Belly performing “Grey Goose,” accompanied by the vocal group Golden Gate Quartet. In the late 1940s, Lead Belly had a regular Sunday night radio broadcast in New York City. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ( Lou Gehrig's disease) in 1949.
Lead Belly’s music has been widely covered since his death, from the Weavers (who had a #1 hit with “Goodnight Irene” in 1950) to Nirvana, who cited him as a major influence and featured his song "In the Pines" on their famed MTV Unplugged special in 1993.
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
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