Why is One of the Greatest Musicians Ignored by His Home Town?
The other night, I had some friends come in to town and we decided to head downtown to Noble Savage. After we parked, we walked passed the statue of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter. My friends had no idea who he was or what the statue was supposed to represent. And, sadly, my friends aren't alone. I know several people that live here and have no idea who Lead Belly is, his contributions to the musical world or why he matters. Folks think Ledbetter is just the name of a Shreveport neighborhood.
Lead Belly is widely regarded as a pioneer of the folk and blues movement of the early 1900s. Ledbetter got his start playing brothels and the red light district in the area next to where the Municipal Auditorium is located. Known in the musical world as the "King of the 12 string", he was literally so talented he sang his way out of murder and attempted murder charges.
Lead Belly famously once said, "When I play, the women would come around to listen and their men would get angry." He shot and killed a relative in 1918 over a woman. According to tradition, he won his early release in 1925 by singing a song for the governor of Texas. Lead Belly was imprisoned again, for attempted murder, in 1930. There, he was "discovered" by folklorists John Lomax and Alan Lomax, who were collecting songs for the Library of Congress. Subsequently, he published 48 songs.
The Lomaxes took Huddie out of a hard life of labor, slums and crimes and sent on a path that led to critical acclaim. After the Lomax family relocated Lead Belly to New York, his career really started to sky rocket. he forged a reputation on the folk circuit, making personal appearances, recording for a variety of labels and doing radio work.
After the invention of the apparatus to record "long-playing records" in 1948, he cut what was later know as The Last Session and is widely regarded as his best work. Lead Belly felt his music and talent were gifts from God. His songs could not be put into one category. He wrote children’s songs, field songs, ballads, square dance songs, prison songs, folk songs, and blues.
The Lead Belly Foundation lists the legacy of Huddie and his recordings:
After Lead Belly’s death, the Weavers, a folk quartet sent “Good Night, Irene” to #1 on the charts, which became the most famous song in his repertoire. That song sold a million copies and was recorded also six months later by Pete Seeger. His music still has a great influence on some of the greatest artists both black and white. Artists like The Beetles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Little Richard,have all expressed their early studies of music to Lead Belly's records.
Today Lead Belly is remembered not only as a musical giant but a legend in his own right throughout the world. He is remembered as the “King of the 12-String Guitar.” Many of his songs can be found in the Library of Congress, where generations to come can listen and enjoy them.
Now many will and do criticize the celebration of a man with such a violent history. And while, and I'm sure Huddie would agree, many of his actions were unjustifiable, you have to remember when and where Ledbetter grew up. It was barely out of the wild west area, black folks weren't exactly given many opportunities...it was a different time and place. The thing that's timeless and important is his connection to the area and the fact he defined and changed a generation of music.
He's buried in Mooringsport. Every year, there is a musical celebration at his gravesite. There is a statue downtown. But, largely, he's ignored and forgotten in our area like so much of other musical history. I don't understand it. Lead Belly changed music and influenced a generation. Johnny Horton and Faron Young were ground breaking country artists who were born and started their careers in the area. Elvis Presley changed the world here in Shreveport. The list goes on and on and on. Yet somehow, we ignore all that history and legend and our jewels seems to only be celebrated by those who aren't from our community.