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An American Legend

Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) was a singer, songwriter, storyteller and activist. He was also a multi-instrumentalist, skilled at harmonica, bass, piano and accordion, but his favorite instrument was the 12 string guitar.  His music was influential to American music legends such as Woody Guthrie, Odetta and the Weavers.  In fact, the great Pete Seeger said, "Lead Belly was the greatest performer that I ever saw".

Join Robert Jones as he pays tribute to this giant of American Folk Music.



Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was born on January 9, 1888 and he died on 

December 6, 1949, but in his 61 years on earth Lead Belly’s contribution to American music and culture was profound and lasting.  Lead Belly was really one of America’s first folk performers.  Certainly there were many people playing and singing folk songs before Lead Belly, but Ledbetter was one of the first performers to combine storytelling, work songs, blues, ballads, children’s songs, spirituals, traditional and original songs in a way that was entertaining and engaging.  Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Josh White and

Brownie McGhee all counted Lead Belly as a musical influence.  Lead Belly was the first American blues performer to make inroads in Europe and his song, “Goodnight Irene” sold more than one and half million copies the year following his death,

As legendary as he was as a performer, however, the story of his personal life was more unbelievable. Lead Belly went to prison four times in his life.  He escaped once, with bullets flying by his ears.  He sang his way into a pardon twice. In 1939 Lead Belly was sentenced to Riker’s Island for assault, but had his sentence shortened by a judge because he single-handedly foiled an armed robbery.   On the other hand, Ledbetter hosted a radio show in on WNYC in New York. He chauffeured and assisted the legendary John Lomax in pursuit of songs in southern prisons, and he performed in schools across the country, ranging from elementary schools to colleges like Princeton and Harvard.  All of this happened during an era that included two World Wars, the Great Depression, and he wrote songs that addressed subjects as diverse as the plight of the working man, racial discrimination in housing, Jim Crow laws, Adolph Hitler, Hollywood celebrities, unrequited love and songs for children.



In the spring of 1976 I was nineteen years old and sitting in the, now closed, Grand Circus Theater in downtown Detroit.  I was there to see a double feature.   The second movie was “The Outlaw Josie Wales”, but the movie that I had gone to see was simply entitled, “Leadbelly”.  The movie opened and closed without much fanfare, but the character portrayed has stayed with me for nearly thirty years. 

"Lead Belly, An American Legend" is an original storytelling piece that tells the story and recalls the music of Huddie Ledbetter.  Each performance is approximately 45 minutes to an hour, but it can be expanded to as many as 90 minutes.  This is a program that is ideal for libraries, colleges and theaters.

People need to know about this great American personality and I feel privileged as a musician, a storyteller and (well) an actor to bring his story and his stories to 21st century audiences.  Lead Belly’s songs like “Rock Island Line”, “On The Western Plain”, “Pick A Bale O’ Cotton”, “ Midnight Special”, “Goodnight Irene” and countless others have helped to shape American culture.  I greatly enjoy the opportunity to introduce this legendary figure to the audiences that he has so greatly influenced.



This guitar was made by master guitar builder, Todd Cambio, himself a fan of Lead Belly's music.  It is a replica of Ledbetter's Stella guitar that is housed at the Smithsonian Institute.

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