Black US blues and folk singer and guitar player.
His early life was spent in poverty, picking cotton, learning songs that dated back to slavery, and playing the guitar. He was discovered by the folklorists Fred and Alan Lomax in the Louisiana State Prison Farm in 1933, where he was serving time for attempted murder. The Lomaxes wrote a book about him in 1936 and brought him to New York. He subsequently recorded folk songs as well as his own songs, such as ‘Midnight Special’ and ‘Rock Island Line’. It is not known whether he collected and adapted them or wrote them himself.
Leadbelly was a fluent player of the twelve-string guitar and, influenced by his friend Blind Lemon Jefferson, he helped to keep alive interest in folk music and the blues during a period in which it was being neglected. He was in prison on four separate occasions for violent crimes. A few months after he died, his song ‘Goodnight Irene’ was a number one hit in the USA.