Monday, December 3, 2012

The Texas Blues #7 – DeKalb Blues – Lead Belly

Monday is here, folks, & you know what that means (at least some of the time): The Monday Morning Blues here on Robert Frost’s Banjo!

We’re back to Texas this week for our continued series on blues artists who called that state home. & today’s featured artist is a true figure, not just in the blues, but in the general history of the folk revival from the 1930s through the 1950s, & indeed, in the larger history of mid century U.S. popular music. I’m talking about Lead Belly, Hudie Ledbetter. Although Lead Belly was born around Mooringsport, Louisiana in either 1888 or 1889, his family moved to Bowie County, Texas when he was five.

Lead Belly began performing while in his teens in the red light district of Shreveport, Louisiana. At first he accompanied himself with the accordion (& he did play the accordion on some of his later recordings), but he eventually moved on to his signature 12-string guitar, tuned down from standard tuning by a fourth (at least that’s the consensus on the tuning.)  He moved to Dallas, & performed with Blind Lemon Jefferson, especially on the streets in the Deep Ellum section of the city.

But, as the story goes, Lead Belly was in & out of jail, often stemming from fights caused or at least made worse by his notorious temper. In 1918 he was jailed for murder following one of these fights in the Sugar Land Penitentiary near Houston—but he was pardoned after a minimum seven-year sentence after appealing to Governor Pat Morris Neff in a song. Then in 1930, he was again in prison for murder following a knife fight, this time in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison Farm. This is where Alan & John Lomax first found him, recorded him, & eventually persuaded the governor to pardon him, again after Lead Belly had served the minimum sentence.

Lead Belly traveled with the Lomaxes & later became a celebrity in the New York folk scene. He performed with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Brownie MacGhee & Sonny Terry, & he was championed by novelist Richard Wright. He recorded for RCA, the Smithsonian& Moe Asch of Folkways during a relatively short but successful career. He was diangosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, while on tour in France in 1949 & died later that year.

As this brief bio will tell you—if you didn’t know already—Lead Belly was larger than life in many respects, & while the blues underpins his music, he certainly moved beyond the blues into other folk genres—for instance, he was particularly fond of cowboy songs (as was Muddy Waters!) & had some hopes of becoming a singing cowboy in films. His sound is very distinctive—between his powerful tenor voice & the drive & growl of his Stella 12-string, you simply can’t mistake a Lead Belly song!

Here’s “DeKalb Blues,” one of his most straightforward blues numbers, from one of the Lomax recording sessions at Angola Prison Farm. A powerful piece of music—enjoy!

Image of Leadbelly links to its source on Wiki Commons. Wiki Commons states that this photo is in the public domain because it was created between 1923 & 1963 & the original copyright was not renewed.


  1. It's always good to hear from Leadbelly again! He was such a large part of the music of my youth, as I was wholly caught up in the folk music scene of the '60s. Thanks for bringing back those memories, John.

  2. Good reason he's a legend! Thanks John.

  3. Hi Titus & Roy: Sorry I slipped up on responding to these--thanks to you both!

  4. If anyone knows the fingerpicking used in de kalb blues and the chords used please let me know ive wanted to learn this song for a few years but just cant figure it out. You can e mail me if you can help me out with guitar tabs for this song
    Thanks much


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