Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was one of the most powerful figures in the early years of the American folkmusic movement. He wasn't tall or muscular, but his steel-wire energy as a "cotton-chopper" gave him the nickname he bore most of his life. His performances radiated an overwhelming intensity that few artists have ever matched. His recordings were instrumental in the creation of Britain's Skiffle movement, which produced the Beatles and many of the other rhythm and blues artists.
He was born Huddie William Ledbetter on Jeder Plantation, a farm in Mooringsport, Louisiana. His birth date has been variously listed as January 20, 1889, January 21, 1885, or January 29, 1885. During his early years, his family appears lived in a number of locations in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. As a young man, Huddie Ledbetter mastered the 12 string guitar, which sounded in his hands like a small orchestra. He became known as "King of the 12 String Guitar", and formed a duo with the legendary blues musician Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Leadbelly once said, "When I play, the women come around to listen and their men get angry." In 1918, he fought and killed a man in Dallas and was sentenced to thirty years to be served in the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. In 1925, he wrote a song asking Governor Pat Neff for a pardon. Neff, who had promised at his election never to pardon a prisoner, broke his promise and set Huddie Ledbetter free.
Back on the road with many new songs he had learned or written at Huntsville, Huddie again found enthusiastic audiences throughout the…