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Lead Belly

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Huddie William Ledbetter, AKA Lead Belly, is a legend in blues history. Lead Belly has his hands in virtually every rock, blues, or country band since the Great Depression–whether they know it or not.

However, the most interesting part of the Lead Belly legacy is perhaps not his musical repertoire, which is impressive indeed, but his personal history. Lead Belly was a hardened criminal, murderer, and jailbird. Historians believe his prison-created moniker, Lead Belly, was either a play on his last name paired with his physical toughness, or the fact that he was shot in the stomach with buckshot. His physical toughness was realized when, in prison, he was stabbed in the neck with a knife and he in turn pulled the knife out and stabbed his attacker, almost killing him. His grizzly physical appearance and toughness went unquestioned.

During one of his stays in prison for murder, he concocted a plan to get out of prison through his music. For seven years he played his guitar for the guards and inmates, playing Southern staples and work songs. Then, he wrote a song to the then Texas Governor, Pat Neff, which lobbied for his freedom and appealed to Neff’s strong religious beliefs. Governor Neff decided that someone like Lead Belly, who was such a talented musician and essentially a walking encyclopedia of music, shouldn’t be kept in prison (an idea unlikely to work in today’s world). Governor Neff then pardoned Lead Belly, and he was freed into the world of the Great Depression.

Unable to find a job out of prison, he teamed up with famed folklorist Alan Lomax to work as his driver as they went around recording music. This only lasted a few months, however, and then Lead Belly made his money playing music across the country for the remainder of his life. He wound up in prison again, in 1939, for stabbing someone. Lomax dropped out of graduate school to help raise money for legal and court fees to get Lead Belly out of jail. He got out of jail a year later, and continued to play his music with Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and Woodie Guthrie. His last performance was at the University of Texas, as a tribute to Lomax. Lead Belly died from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949.

Lead Belly’s legacy, as previously mentioned, is massive–even in genres you might not expect. For instance, Nirvana covered this featured song, and his other works has been covered by bands like the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, The Doors, Old Crow Medicine Show, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, The White Stripes, and many, many more across a wide variety of genres. Lead Belly, while an extremely violent and aggressive man, was one of the most prized musicians in American history, and continues to remain so into the modern world.