‘King Of The 12-String Guitar’: Lead Belly’s Legend Lives On

Lead Belly playing on his 12-string guitar, ''Stella.''
Lead Belly playing on his 12-string guitar, ''Stella.''
Credit William P. Gottlieb / The Library of Congress

George Harrison famously said, “No Lead Belly … no Beatles.”  Musicians as diverse as The Weavers and Kurt Cobain have played Lead Belly’s songs to enthusiastic audiences, but many Americans sing his lyrics without ever realizing that he wrote them.

John Reynolds, author of “Lead Belly:  A Life in Pictures” spoke with Rose Scott and Denis O’Hayer about Lead Belly, who was born in 1889 as Huddie Ledbetter.Author John Reynolds talks about Lead Belly

Lead Belly began playing and singing at a young age, eventually calling himself the “King of the 12-String Guitar.”  Reynolds said that Lead Belly gave his own special touch to even the most familiar of folk songs, which can be heard on more than 500 recordings of his work.

Lead Belly served time in Angola Prison, where musicologists John and Alan Lomax were able to record his songs for the Library of Congress.  When he was released, Lead Belly relocated to New York, playing the folk circuit and joining programs of African American music.  The singer Paul Robeson wrote about him, “Our American Negro folk songs sprang directly out of our lives – our working lives – like John Henry ballads and countless others so superbly sung by Lead Belly.”Leadbelly and his 12-string guitar

John Reynolds is featured in the documentary, “Legend of Lead Belly,” a Black History Month special, that premieres at 8 p.m. tonight on the Smithsonian Channel.