More than any other black folk-blues artist of his time Leadbelly helped expose his race's vast musical riches to white America, and, in the process, helped preserve a folk legacy that has become a significant part of the nation's musical treasury. He was not a blues singer in the traditional sense; he also sang spirituals, pop, field and prison hollers, cowboy and childrens songs, dance tunes and folk ballads, and of course his own topical compositions. It has been said his repertoire was at least 500 songs.
He never saw any commercial success during his lifetime. Not until after his death did a broader public come to know his songs and the amazing story of his life. Huddie William Ledbetter was born on January 29, 1889 on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. He was the only child of sharecropper parents Wesley and Sally. Huddie and his parents moved to Leigh, Texas when he was five and it was there that he became interested in music, encouraged by his uncle Terrell who bought Huddie his first musical instrument, an accordion.
Over the years he became fluent on the piano, harp, mandolin and harmonica but he is best remembered for his 12 string guitar. By the age of 18 he had two children and had smashed his father over the head with a poker during an argument. Though little is known about Leadbelly's early life - he rarely spoke of those days - he left home at 20 and over the next ten years wandered throughout the southwest eking out an existence by playing guitar when he could and working as a laborer when he had to. Sometime around 1915 he met the seminal Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and worked and traveled with him as his "lead boy" (guide, companion and protégé) on the streets of Dallas.
By this time, Leadbelly had settled on the twelve-string guitar as his instrument of choice. Leadbelly also developed a wonderfully rhythmic guitar style in which he imitated the walking bass figures commonly employed by barrelhouse piano players on Fannin Street, the most celebrated street in Shreveport's red-light district, where Leadbelly was known to have worked.
In 1916 Huddie was jailed in Texas for assaulting a woman. He escaped and spent two years under the alias of Walter Boyd before killing a man in a fight and being sentenced to thirty years hard labor in Texas' Shaw State Prison Farm. After seven years he was released after begging pardon from the governor with a song. Huddie left Huntsville a free man, but in 1930 he was again convicted of attempted homicide. It was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in July 1933 that Huddie met folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan who were touring the south for the Library of Congress, collecting unwritten ballads and folk songs using the newly available recording technology. The Lomaxes had discovered that Southern prisons were among the best places to collect work songs, ballads and spirituals and Leadbelly, as he now called himself, was a particular find.