On this day in 1949, Huddie Ledbetter, aka “Lead Belly,” died in New York City.
Ledbetter, a blues musician, was born in Louisiana in 1889. His talents were discovered early on, learning how to play a concertina called the windjammer, and later the 12-string guitar.
He got married in 1908 in Kaufman County, and he and his wife split their time between farming in rural areas and living in Dallas.
Ledbetter met Blind Lemon Jefferson around 1912, and they became musical partners, often performing around Union Depot near Central and Elm in Deep Ellum. Jefferson taught Ledbetter about blues, and Ledbetter took up the dancing, doing the buck-and-wing, a kind of shuffle.
Here’s how Ledbetter described their performances, according to Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas, by Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield:
The women would come running, Lord have mercy. They’d hug and kiss us so much we could hardly play. He was a blind man, and I used to lead him around. When him and I go in the depot, we’d sit down and talk to one another.
Jefferson and Ledbetter also played on trains.
The act broke up around 1915 when Ledbetter left Dallas. In 1918, Ledbetter was sent to prison for murdering a man in Dallas. He was sentenced to 30 years at the state prison in Huntsville, but he was pardoned by Gov. Pat Neff in 1925.
In 1930, Ledbetter was sent to prison in Louisiana after a fight. While there, he was discovered by folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who recorded his song, “Good Night Irene.” On the other side of the record, he sang a ballad asking Louisiana’s governor for a pardon.
Ledbetter is included in the mural by Tristan Eaton.
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