Before Johnny Cash recorded “Rock Island Line,” before Pete Seeger sang about studying war no more, and before Nirvana did a harrowing version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged, there was Lead Belly. Mentored by the titanic bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly was a singer, guitarist, and storyteller, one whose work helped define these artists and American vernacular music in the twentieth century.
But before he was even Lead Belly, he was Huddie Ledbetter, born in 1889 to an independent farming family near Mooringsport, Louisiana. In December 1934, Ledbetter rolled into Raleigh along with two famous music collectors. The trio spent four days just before Christmas in Raleigh, gathering songs as part of a long-lasting effort to preserve and promote American music.
An early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lead Belly stands today as an overarching figure of American music. He used his deep, rangey voice and powerful guitar playing to render blues, field hollers, country-style tunes, hymns, story-songs, and, later on, songs of social protest. Although he may lack the mythological cachet of a Robert Johnson, Lead Belly produced a body of work at least as fundamental to roots music. And he came to Raleigh at the peak of his powers.
Songs such as “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Cottonfields,” and “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?),” and his propulsive performance style made Ledbetter a fixture of the New York and national folk scene; he befriended Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and enjoyed modest success as a record and radio artist.
However, at the time he visited Raleigh, he had been released only about six months earlier from a second prison term for violent crime. The mighty twelve-string guitarist from Louisiana was on the brink of fame at age forty-five. But all that came after Raleigh.
In 1934, Ledbetter was working as a driver for a father-son team of folklorists and song collectors: sixty-seven-year-old John A. Lomax and nineteen-year-old Alan Lomax. They were traversing the South with Ledbetter serving as a savvy intermediary during stops at prisons to record inmates’ blues, ballads, field hollers, and gospel tunes. The Lomaxes had met Ledbetter while collecting songs in a Texas prison in 1933. In later documentary footage, Alan Lomax, who died in 2002, says that his father had the idea that “all the sinful people” were in jail. He noted that turning to prisons as sources yielded incredible pieces of vernacular music.
Lead Belly had spent from 1918 to 1925 in prison in Sugarland, Texas, on a homicide charge, winning a famous release based on a song he wrote about then-governor Pat Neff. From 1930 to 1934, Ledbetter sat in Louisiana’s Angola Prison on an assault charge. It was there that he met the Lomaxes, about a year before his release, and conceived the idea of working for them.
When John Lomax hired Ledbetter in fall 1934, the musician’s role paved the way for the white collectors and their recording equipment in the Southern towns they visited. In their 1992 biography of Lead Belly, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, music scholars Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell wrote that Ledbetter “continued to ‘prime the pump’ at prisons by playing and singing the kinds of songs that Lomax wanted and stimulating the local singers to come forward.”
The remarkable journey the Lomaxes and Ledbetter made in late 1934 can be tracked by the recordings they made along the way toward the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. They started the first week of December in Sugarland, Texas, where Ledbetter had once been a prisoner. The party turned northeast to Baton Rouge, then east to prisons in Atlanta and Milledgeville, Georgia, and in Boykin, South Carolina. The trek totaled about 1,350 miles during about two weeks on rough, undivided highways.
After recording a few tunes in Boykin on December 19, the group made the two-hundred-mile trip to Raleigh the same day, arriving in time to capture more music at the Central Prison. They cut more discs on December 22, with Ledbetter even accompanying an inmate on a song with his unmistakeable, rumbling guitar style.
A reporter’s scan of the period’s Raleigh Times and News & Observer editions on microfilm in the State Library didn’t produce any mention of these notable figures in American music. Instead, the rival papers portrayed a Depression-era Raleigh steeped in society and crime, church and government, parties and poverty. A wealth of downtown stores offered Christmas fare.
African-American people were identified as Negroes in the paper, whether teachers or convicts. The exploits of Louisiana Senator Huey Long, along with a sex trafficking trial in Smithfield, dominated the week’s front pages.
Into this environment Lead Belly drove the Lomaxes, who were notable in their own rights. Texas banker and music lover John A. Lomax started collecting folk songs in the early twentieth century, issuing a collection of cowboy songs in 1910, with an introduction by President Theodore Roosevelt. His foundational book, American Ballads and Folk Songs, was published in October of the same year he visited Raleigh.
Alan Lomax would spend the rest of the century collecting and preserving music from all over the United States, as well as in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. His archives are preserved digitally at the Smithsonian Institution, with many songs and photographs available online.
But why were they all in Raleigh? As far as can be determined, the travelers simply found the City of Oaks in their path, just as Chuck Berry did in “Promised Land” and James Brown in “Night Train.”
Even though the party spent much of their time lugging around a disc cutter and tracking down singers and storytellers, John Lomax often found time to get out in the communities they visited. John Lomax III, a journalist and producer in Nashville, Tennessee, described what he knew of the era during an interview this month.
“They could visit prisons, and Grandfather would lecture at various places,” he says. “He would talk about collecting and songs and a lot of times, when he had Lead Belly with him, Lead Belly would sing.”
It’s tantalizing to think of these famous men holding forth in 1934 at a college, in Carolina’s folk-collecting scene, or at a Raleigh academic or social gathering. However, a reasonably diligent search has not uncovered such an event.
huddie Ledbetter, born in 1889, came from a stable family but had walked a rough and sometimes violent path before joining the Lomaxes, doing farm work and other hard labor as he traveled through the South and West. But he was also a brilliantly talented musician who must have practiced and played at great length to achieve his mastery of playing and singing.
“That wasn’t anything unusual for blacks to doto leave home at an early agebecause they were running away from that pressure and that hard labor they were under,” Tiny Robinson, Ledbetter’s niece, told me in 1990 in Brentwood, Tennessee. For Ledbetter and other black musicians on the road, the guitar was more than a musical instrument.
“It was company to them. The guitar was all they had. It was their life,” Robinson said.
Ledbetter already had a substantial repertoire before he came to Raleigh. His bag of songs included hardcore blues, including the tune later known as “Matchbox Blues,” the Gene Autry weeper “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” gospel numbers like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” work songs such as “Linin’ Track,” and prison numbers, notably the later success, “Midnight Special.”
On December 22, 1934, at North Carolina State Prison on Western Boulevard, Ledbetter played his twelve-string guitar behind an inmate named George W. Smith. Out of several George Smiths imprisoned during that era, the singer was likely a forty-seven-year-old prisoner from Avery County, according Doug Brown, public services unit manager at the North Carolina State Archives.
“Little Willie’s My Darlin’,” a sprightly, country-tinged number with similarities to “Birmingham Jail,” has an accomplished guitar part from Lead Belly, including a few of his ragtime-y bass runs. It’s a rare instance of his playing guitar as the lone backer of another singer.