Some musicians just have a freakish amount of talent. Most of us learn at a young age that we are not those people. The realization probably came as soon as you were old enough to read social cues and you tried showing off your amazing talents to anyone except your pet. (Daisy is a very good dog, but maybe not a very good judge of musical ability.) Those who do have that freakish amount of talent are the singer-songwriters, the people who can play any instrument they pick up, the ones who get lost in the music of their own making whether they’re in the studio or on stage. There’s something almost magical about listening to a true musical genius, and they’ve definitely earned our respect. But it’s easy to forget that behind all that music is a very ordinary person, and sometimes, that ordinary person has tendencies to be less than perfect.
Lead Belly died in 1949, and if you don’t remember him, you should at least be glad groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival and artists like Bob Dylan didn’t forget him. Even George Harrison once said, “No Lead Belly, no Beatles.” You know the songs he recorded, too — like “The Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene” (via The Telegraph).
Huddie Ledbetter was born in 1888, and he picked up the name Lead Belly in prison. He did several stretches in jail, starting with 30 days on a chain gang in 1915 for getting in a particularly violent fight. Two years later he was arrested again, this time for killing his cousin’s husband and nearly killing another. He was pardoned in 1925 but went back in jail in 1930, this time for stabbing and what Black History Now says was “assault with intent to murder.” It was during this stint he was discovered by a pair of musicologists who were recording songs for the Smithsonian, and Lead Belly recorded hundreds for them. The rest of his life was a combination of performing at venues of all sizes across the country, and more time in jail. There was another stabbing incident in 1939, assault in 1940 … you get the picture. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease only months before he died from it, and he left behind an incredible legacy. And some dead people.
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