Lead Belly

This month’s Badass is someone who even has a badass name: Lead Belly.

Nobody is quite sure where the nickname came from, but legends differ and include the fact that he was strong as a damn ox  and he was tough as hell. Another includes the fables that apparently he could drink the nastiest, craziest moonshine and show no ill effects. Yet another has a story that he was apparently shot in the abdomen by a shotgun and survived. No matter which you go with, our man Lead Belly was one badass dude.

So this guy is born to a family of 4 other boys, and quickly sees that his dad’s manual labor life of killing himself with 12 hour shifts for virtually no pay is not the ticket he wanted, so he drops out of school at age 12, and heads to the speak-easys around Shreveport, LA playing an accordion. Born Huddie William Ledbetter, he was then married with two kids by the time he was 16, and divorced by 20. He quickly developed  a reputation as one of the more skilled musicians in the area, but he wandered all over the South playing whatever crappy dive that would pay him, and working manual labor when the music didn’t cover the bills.

Lead Belly rode the rails, traveling the beer soaked streets of Shreveport’s seediest neighborhoods to playing the hottest clubs in Deep Ellum, Texas (thus why he has made our list of Texan badasses.) While he was skilled with his accordion (only one of the most complicated instruments to play), he also learned the piano, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, and violin, and at one time boasted that he could play any of the over 500 songs he had in his brain’s iPod.

He ran into a bit of a “problem” in 1915, when he was arrested for punching a dude in the face, pulling a gun in the middle of a barroom brawl, and then pummeling some guy with it. He was sent to work on a chain gang out in Harrison County, Texas, but because his name was Lead Belly, that just wouldn’t work for him. So 2 days into his sentence, he took off running when the guards weren’t looking, got away from their dogs, moved to the next county, changed his name, and resumed his kickass “pickin and grinning” ways.

Ol’ Lead laid low for a while and the heat died down, but because he spent most of his waking hours hanging out in dive bars surrounded by folks that hung out in dive bars, trouble found him again. The details aren’t entirely clear, but apparently in 1918, Lead’s cousin’s husband was being a jackass, so Lead decided that the best way to resolve the issue was to go to his house with a knife and a pistol and to beat the holy hell out of him and all his friends. When the dust cleared, the husband was dead, another dude was beaten unconscious, and our friend Lead was sentenced to 7-to-35 years at the Texas State Penitentiary.

While he was in the Pen, Lead became a bit of a legend as he somehow managed to smuggle in a guitar, and made a hell of a name for himself amongst the other prisoners and the guards as he played music for everyone because, hey, he had a lot of free time. Word spread quickly of Lead’s musical talents, and none other than the Governor eventually asked the “Singing Convict” to come play for him, and sure enough, Lead knocked his socks off. He then wrote a song about the Governor granting him a pardon for his crimes, and played it for him one evening.

He got the pardon.

But because his name was Lead Belly, and because he was a badass, trouble didn’t stay far from him. In 1930, he got into a knife fight in an alley in New Orleans and earned himself another lengthy prison stay. Again he kept everyone entertained with his smuggled guitar and was a popular prisoner. However, there are losers everywhere, so some guy decides he doesn’t like his music, and stabs Lead in the neck with a prison shank. Lead pulls it out of his freakin’ neck, and damn near beats the guy to death. For the rest of his life, he had a killer scar along his neckline.

Just like before, word travelled fast of the singing convict and his 12-string guitar, and just like before, he somehow talked the Governor of Louisiana into a pardon, and off he split to spend 1934 travelling the country playing his timeless and popular folk music for anyone that would listen.

By 1936, Lead was playing twice a night at the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, was being recorded for TIME newsreels, had a bunch of articles printed about him in the People’s Daily Magazine (which is kinda funny as the magazine was a Socialist publication and Lead was definitely not a Socialist), and recorded a whole bunch of songs for Columbia Records. But, yet again, our hero Lead found himself back in the clink by 1939 when he got into yet another knife fight, but was back on the music scene as soon as he got out and had a regular spot on the CBS Radio Show, playing Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger tunes.

As for Lead Belly’s music, let’s just say that they called him the “King of the Twelve String” for a reason. He could play virtually any song on demand, almost exclusively finger-picked his songs (very difficult), and had his songs were covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger. In fact, Bob Dylan once said that Lead was “one of the few ex-cons to record a successful children’s album” (which he actually did).

Lead registered for the draft in WWII, but was never called up, so he decided to go on a European Tour to entertain the troops, just because he was a badass. That song that he played for the Governor of Texas that got him a pardon? Yeah, Pete Seeger recorded it and went on to earn millions from the song. He also wrote “The House of the Rising Sun”.

Lead Belly died in 1949 at the age of 61 from Lou Gehrig’s disease.

There’s a lifesized statue of Lead Belly in Shreveport (across from the courthouse, which is both comical and BADASS due to his many run-ins with the justice system in that very courthouse), and the state erected a grave marker at his site. He was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and had his songs covered by Johnny Cash, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and dozens of other bands, all whom cited Lead Belly as being a badass influence on their own badass careers.

Cheers to you, Lead Belly. You weren’t in Texas long, but I guess enough Texas rubbed off on you to ensure that your entire life was…well…pretty badass.


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