Lead Belly, son of the South and an American original is one of my favorite roots-music musicians.
Lead Belly was born Huddie Ledbetter, either in Texas or Louisiana, sometime around 1887 or 1888. He was one powerful “musicianer”, but he was too a powerful mean man with a knife. His second stint in prison was for killing a relative in a fight. After serving seven years for that crime, he was able to convince the governor of Texas to set him free by singing him a song:
Please, Governor Neff, Be good ‘n’ kind
Have mercy on my great long time…
I don’t see to save my soul
If I don’t get a pardon, try me on a parole…
If I had you, Governor Neff, like you got me
I’d wake up in the mornin’ and I’d set you free
However, by 1930, Lead Belly was back in prison, this time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for attempted homicide. It was there that he was aided by American folklorists Alan and John Lomax. It was they who suggested that he try his song writing abilities on the Louisiana governor. They recorded his petition on the back of his popular ballad “Goodnight Irene,” and, once again, it worked like a charm.
The Lomaxes took him north where they recorded hundreds of his songs and Lead Belly became a musical sensation. Their relationship ended when Lead Belly threatened to use his knife on them, but by that time he had established his musical talents and was befriended by local musicians such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.