Lead Belly – King Of The Twelve-String Guitar

Lead Belly, born Huddie William Ledbetter, was a blues and folk singer known for being the most prolific and talented performer to come out of his era. His ability to tell stories with a guitar, specifically a twelve-string guitar, are rivaled by almost none in the folk and blues genre. His songs have been covered by countless artists, and his legacy lives on through numerous collections of songs that he recorded over his lifetime.

Publicity photo donated to the Rock Hall Archives

His story begins on a plantation in Louisiana, specifically Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1888. By 1903, he was already playing the guitar and singing in various clubs and bars in the Shreveport area. One of the first songs he wrote was a song called “The Titanic”, influenced by the sinking of the Titanic. This was the first time he played the twelve-string guitar, and after this, he made it his main instrument. I have personally played a twelve-string, and it is a very different instrument that a six-string. The action is much higher, and sound it gives is a lot more resonant and good for playing without any recording equipment or microphones, simply because of the loudness and tone it gives off. Many people have played the twelve-string, but Lead Belly is the only one to make it his one and only instrument throughout his career, which is actually very interesting. In a similar way, the name yannistalebeats came in a similar way. Before having the name yannistalebeats, I played around with a couple of goofy usernames, but none of them ever sticked, so one day, specifically when I was a senior in high school, I was playing the drums and some one said, “you are so bad at drums, your beats are the opposite of fresh, they’re stale”, and thus yannistalebeats was born and has been my username for everything ever since. Back to Lead Belly haha.

In a sudden twist of events, Lead Belly’s life took a turn for the worst when he was arrested for carrying a pistol and spent time in a chain gang. Shortly after he escaped prison, he started working under the alias ‘Walter Boyd’. Not long after, he was sent to jail for killing one of his relatives over a woman. At this point, he started to learn songs that were the standards in prison that people would sing, such as “Midnight Special”, one of his biggest hits. The craziest part about his story is the was he was pardoned. He wrote a song for the governor at the time, and combined with good behavior, they let him go free with the minimum sentence. It didn’t end there though, because he was again on trial for attempted homicide, this time for stabbing a white man in a fight. In prison, he was found by two people, John and Alan Lomax, that would record him for a collection of songs that would be submitted to the Library of Congress. His life keeps going on, with many trials and tribulations, but what I would like to talk about next is his music and my opinions on it.

Other than the hits that he became known for, such as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, which was famously covered by Nirvana in their MTV Unplugged album, “Black Betty”, which is better known as a classic rock standard recorded by Ram Jam, “Goodnight Irene”, and “Midnight Special”, there is a seemingly endless collection of songs written about historical events and stories of people that were either inspired by real events or were the real story. A few examples of this include “The Hindenburg Disaster”, which also inspired the name Led Zeppelin, “Jim Crow Blues”, “Hitler Song”, which I would highly recommend giving a listen, and “Governor Pat Neff”, which I’m guessing is the song he wrote that got him out of prison, mainly because it was the name of the governor at the time. Songs like “When a Man’s a Long Way from Home” provides a guitar riff that is similar to something you would hear in an Elvis song, which makes sense because the blues is pretty much what influenced rock music even to this day. Similar to how people say that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist of all time, people are just as influenced by Lead Belly’s raw songwriting ability and guitar style. There is actually a video of Jimi Hendrix playing a song called “Twelve-String Blues” on a twelve-string guitar, which I really like:

You could tell that Lead Belly had some humor in his songs, especially with songs like “Big Fat Woman”, but at the same time, songs like “Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil in It” show his religious beliefs. I’ve noticed that a lot of the old blues singers made songs about religious themes, which is funny in itself because it was called in that time “the Devil’s music” by church going people. I think the blues singers embraced this, especially Robert Johnson with his “Crossroad” and urban legend of him meeting the devil himself, which I talked about in my post called “The 27 Club: Forever 27“. A little known fact was that Robert Johnson was the first member of the 27 Club, so if you’re interested in urban legends, I would highly suggest checking out my extensive post on it.

Overall, Lead Belly has one of the most complete collections of anyone from his era, partly because of the Smithsonian recordings and numerous live recordings. He is truly a legend in music, and his influence is present to this day, either by people covering his songs, his guitar and vocal style, or his personality that shines through in his music. When people look back at that era of American history, Lead Belly will be considered as being one of the most prolific and honest performers to ever exist. Thanks for reading, and as always, God Bless America.

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