Huddie William Ledbetter (January 23, 1888 - December 6, 1949) was an American folk and blues musician, notable for his clear and forceful singing, his virtuosity on the twelve string guitar, and the rich songbook of folk standards he introduced. He is best known as Leadbelly or Lead Belly (see below).
Although his most commonly-played instrument was the twelve string, he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, concertina, and accordion. In some of his recordings, such as in one of his versions of the folk ballad "John Hardy", he performs on the accordion instead of the guitar.
The topics of Lead Belly's music covered a wide range of subjects, including gospel songs, blues songs about women, liquor, racism, folk songs about cowboys, prison, work, sailors, cattle herding, dancing, and songs concerning the newsmakers of the day, such as President Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, the Scottsboro Boys, and multi-millionaire Howard Hughes.
Lead Belly's vast songbook, much of which he adapted from previous sources, has provided material for numerous folk, country, pop and rock acts since his time, including Seeger's band The Weavers (who had a hit with "Goodnight Irene" the year after Lead Belly's death), The Animals (who had a hit with "The House of the Rising Sun" in 1964), Creedence Clearwater Revival (who recorded a popular version of "Midnight Special" in 1969), and Kurt Cobain (who covered "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" in 1993 to close Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance). Mark Lanegan also covered "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" for his album The Winding Sheet (1990), with Kurt Cobain participating with guitar and backing vocals. Davy Graham covered "Leavin' Blues", The Rolling Stones adapted "The Bourgeois Blues" for "When The Whip Comes Down". Lead Belly has also been covered by Ry Cooder, Lonnie Donegan, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Billy Childish (who even named his son Huddie), Mungo Jerry, Paul King, Michelle Shocked, British Sea Power, Rod Stewart, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The White Stripes, and The Fall, among many others. Lead Belly has been mentioned in songs by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Pearl Jam, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Dead Milkmen and Stone Temple Pilots. Seeger wrote a song about Lead Belly. Nigel Blackwell impersonates Lead Belly in the Half Man Half Biscuit song "24 Hour Garage People".
A Lead Belly biopic, titled Leadbelly, was released in 1976. It was directed by Gordon Parks, and stars Roger E. Mosley in the title role. The film chronicles Lead Belly's life until his final release from prison.
Though many releases list him as "Leadbelly", the correct spelling of is actually "Lead Belly". This is the way he wrote his nickname, and it is also the way that his nickname is listed on his tombstone , as well as the Lead Belly Foundation and various LP/CD releases (most notably his recordings for Folkways, for example Lead Belly's Last Sessions and Where Did You Sleep Last Night).